In Vanessa Veselka’s first novel, Zazen (2011), a geologist named Della contemplates the political unrest in her native Portland, Oregon and the meaningless wars her country is busy losing: “It’s not any better here — here, there, now, tomorrow, next Wednesday — Geologically speaking it’s all the same millisecond. The gentle rustle of armies crawling the planet like ants. Anybody with any sense knows what’s coming.”
It’s typical of Veselka’s characters to be full of such clear-eyed resentment. They’re people who want everything from other people who want nothing to do with them. Take Cyril, prime mover of the events in Veselka’s latest novel, The Great Offshore Grounds. After starting out as a software entrepreneur and importer/exporter of Tibetan souvenirs, he eventually “transcended goods and services almost entirely, diversifying into multiple shell companies, replicating and mirroring, acquiring and sloughing off; unmoored from states of reality — like warehouses and people — to become an algorithmic superstructure of predatory capital, ever moving, ever present, unfixable in space and time.”
As the novel begins, Cyril invites his two grown daughters, Livy and Cheyenne, to his wedding — his new wife is about their age. He teases a gift for them, and since he’s rich and long-estranged and they’re poor, they grow full of expectations. Instead, he arranges a moment alone with his daughters so he can tell them to their faces he’s through with them. And, yes, to give them a gift, one that, in the course of time, will bring knowledge and pain (knowledge as pain): the name of their mother. Or one of their mothers.
Cyril was a searcher in Seattle in the 1980s, bedecked with the “plumage” of new-age bric-a-brac, when he impregnated two different women, Kirsten and Justine. One of the women wanted children and one wanted freedom. The women struck a deal: “The one who wanted the baby would take both children and the one who wanted the North Star would continue on.” Throughout the children’s lives the name of this second woman, Justine (or Ann, as she is sometimes called) — and which daughter belonged to whom — has remained a secret, and that secrecy has been enforced by Kirsten, who raised them both, and who flies into a rage to learn her secret has been revealed.
The sisters, now in their early thirties, also follow different stars. Livy has a calling, a vocation, however unremunerative: she’s a deep-sea fisherman, happiest leagues off land, long-lining, crabbing, salmon fishing in the Bering Sea. Cheyenne, adrift in life, a series of age-inappropriate affairs behind her, moves in with Livy after her marriage to an Ivy-league professor goes kaput — that is, until news of Justine’s existence, her palpable rather than mythological reality, rouses Cheyenne from her slumbers. With the name of this new woman in-hand, Cheyenne begins to “fixate on the idea that one of them might have come from people who had something.” That something isn’t just money; it’s answers. “There had to be meaning in this,” Cheyenne hopes. “Why else would it be so stupid?”
While Livy adventures on boats run by meth-head captains, boats held together with duct tape, risking her safety and her sanity, Cheyenne travels across the country in search of a mother or mother figure, and in search of meaning, and maybe a second chance.
The Great Offshore Grounds is not a story about people who can’t help but cause each other pain because of how much they love each other. Rather, it’s a story about people who want to be free of each other, free of obligation, and free of influence — people “who would rather risk a gun to their head than have a boss” and people with “the will to destroy everything around you and prove again you can live with nothing.”
Their cruelty, as Veselka reveals, is learned cruelty: it originates in a capitalist thuggery that atomizes these characters and pits them against one another, and, not incidentally, keeps them poor. “A broken arm could shatter Livy’s livelihood. Bronchitis could soak up an entire paycheck. One minor bike accident, that’s it, watch below.” There is no security in this world, and a lack of security breeds paranoia, stresses relationships, and makes any kind of employment precarious.
Such precarity breeds the kind of radical independence where even love becomes a liability, and behind every kindness lurks a supernumerary obligation: “The idea of being in debt to a stranger made Livy’s blood run cold.” This is freedom of a sort, but for most people it turns out to be the dark flip side of the sort of freedom the wealthy enjoy. While the rich, like Cyril, enjoy the liberation to drill where they like for oil, shift their cash offshore, and dole out favors as they like, the poor enjoy the freedom to drive as long as the car holds out, take on debt, work to become “a flexible team player with experience and a positive attitude.”
This being America, both rich and poor are welcome to sample from any number of options in the spiritual buffet. For Kirsten, the girls’ mother, witchcraft is “a condom to lower the risk of spiritually transmitted diseases like monogamy and patriarchy.” Feminism makes a religion for some, while others turn to Mormonism or get tattoos of Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead. Cyril justifies his irresponsibility with a cock-and-bull story about the Tibetan Bardo. Another character studies an Americanized version of Zen Buddhism in Montana until she begins “to wonder if this is about liberation at all. It seems more like watering yourself down and pretending to be Japanese.”
One of the most impressive features of Veselka’s work is the way she both sees through the self-inflating claptrap of spiritual appropriation (stories that begin with vague appeals to authority like “The Indians believe…” “The Indians say…” — a reach at unearned mysticism, unearned myth; “Which Indians?” the two sisters challenge when their parents quote badly sourced wisdom, “Exactly. Which. Indians?”) and also understands how, from time to time, language borrowed from other cultures really does help us find words for unnamed things inside us. “Last year,” explains the Tlingit fisherman with the Anubis tattoo, “was the worst since my mom died. Getting tattooed was the highlight. I was so low. But the darkness was just part of the magic.” Or when Essex, the 28-year-old adopted brother to Livy and Cheyenne and a white Marine recruit, chides his racially insensitive companions with a speech about how perfectly he admires the ancient Middle-Eastern goddess Ishtar. “My mom is a witch,” Essex says,
Essex is easily one of Veselka’s most endearing, if frustrating, creations. Broke and unmoored, Essex joins the Marines in search of “a perfect working socialism,” although, in an ideal scenario, there’d be “some way to sign over your life without killing something.”
Neglected by his birth mother, raised among “ugly blocks of subsidized housing, surrounded by fast-food chains, penned in by arterial roads without sidewalks,” Essex somehow acquires a heart of devotion, a talent for love. His enlistment isn’t motivated by even a shred of patriotism; it’s an act of directed love. He wants to take care of his adopted mother Kirsten (he buys her a car), and his adopted sisters. He wants to send money, give back, not to his country but to the family that rescued him — and that stood by him before he joined, even as he “failed at most everything conferring social value. School counselors, fry-cook managers, concerned citizens strained to make real to him the costs of his behavior. He wore his ability to suffer consequences like a merit badge.”
In this he’s a match for his sister Cheyenne, who, like Livy, feels so betrayed by the world, and by herself, that all loyalty is suspect, and all that’s left is “a flirtatious love of destruction.” In fact, Essex is in love with Cheyenne, though she rejects out of hand any kind of love offer, not just from her adopted brother but from anyone. It’s not clear what she wants, aside from escape, a “prize for desire.” She feels a “terrible awe” in the presence of those who don’t seem to care about their own pasts, those who can walk away.
One of the dramatic questions of the book, as it narrates Cheyenne’s road trip east to find the woman who may or may not be her birth mother, is what drives her and drives the journey. Is it a desire to find redemption, belonging, home? Or is it a desire for pure escape — escape so absolute that not caring what other people think of you becomes, by a mirror-trick, not caring about other people?
If we can see the kind of damage caused by people like Cyril, why do we still envy their money and their opportunities? Perhaps, as one of the women Cheyenne meets on the road observes, “Say a woman thinks she’d be a fine mom but leaves her children anyway and never feels any guilt at all. People are terrified of that kind of freedom.” Call it creative destruction or incitement to sin or harassment of the soul: total freedom, like the tent canopy in the sudden deluge at Cyril’s wedding that “snapped in the high winds and finally tore in one long awful sound,” can cause lives to snap and tear.
Can Cheyenne walk away from her own past? How about the sinister past of her country? She’s a white woman named Cheyenne: there’s no freedom from imperialism’s reach, into the sea and sky, into the past (“no way out of history. No matter how much you want to come from a different story, you can’t”). How do you keep going when everyone’s failed you? How do you keep going when you’ve failed everyone else?
In the end, some of the characters in The Great Offshore Grounds succumb to capitalist exploitation and neglect; some build new lives with the people around them; some chase Polaris. All of them, by the story’s close, have made profound financial decisions, even if out of pure rebellion, pure attack. None of these decisions are purely selfish — which is a kind of victory — but all of them involve a kind of abandonment, and the search for meaning in new directions, among new people. Every economic crisis, after all, is a spiritual crisis: What do we value? What can we not afford to do without?