Zasada’s mean characters ask big questions
Marc Porter Zasada likes to say he grew up in the suburbs, but whether they were in the Bay Area or somewhere near Washington, DC, it doesn’t really matter which one. “My great ambition was to get out of the suburbs, mentally and physically,” he says. He certainly accomplished that goal as he is now a longtime Los Angeles resident that locals may even recognize as “The urban man(the name of his former radio show on LA’s KCRW). But Zasada never lost his inclination to question the mundane, as each of his various characters does The Impossible Coasthis compilation of intriguing, interlocking short stories.
Zasada studied English at Stanford and has since had a variety of careers ranging from newspaper editor to book reviewer to high-tech marketing and more. He and his wife also raised four children, all now adults, but he still found time to pursue his own writing. Over six years and a total of 240 radio shows, Zasada’s Urban Man essays examined contemporary life in LA, making an ironic argument that Hollywood writers must be the most religious people on the planet (since their heroes always seem to succeed through divine intervention). “Urban Man’s essays were very much about ideas,” Zasada says. “I think in terms of ideas. And I think in stories.”
Six years ago, Zasada found himself rethinking the ideas he toyed with when he was 25 years old. Of the eight old short stories he dug up, he thought three could be saved, and they inspired him to start working on The Impossible Coast† Zasada prefers not to mention the stories he made nearly 40 years ago, largely because he sees shore as being in its own genre. It’s more than a classic collection because of the way the themes and characters are intertwined, but it’s not quite a novel either. “It’s in a sense both an essay and a work of fiction,” Zasada says. “The stories argue and speak to each other.”
Kirkus Reviews Zasada calls his stories “pitch-perfect renditions of small, depressed lives with evocations of the cosmic sublime.” Taking readers from the streets of present-day New York, where hallucinations prompt a man to change his life, back to 18th-century California, where an American Indian confronts the dawn of the modern world, Zasada’s ubiquitous narrator offers poignant observations as he explores very different characters, all eager for meaning, be they rock stars, deli managers or political advisers in the closet.
Zasada’s stories strike an awkward balance between hopeful, tragic, and comic, as in “The Freedom of the Dead,” in which Dr. Abigail Becker, a contemporary scholar of comparative religion, finds himself in a dreamy but combative conversation with Ohr LevTov , the late 19th-century Hasidic rabbi whose works she discussed with her students. His comments lead her to rethink her entire existence:
Briefly but efficiently, as her students continued to rumble in aimless speculation, Dr. Becker’s life again. Like most of us in the early 21st century, she was very good at re-evaluating her life. Indeed, to keep up with the practice, most of us re-evaluate our lives several times a day, even without the urging of dead thinkers. Socrates may have said that the unexamined life wasn’t worth living, but in our day, most of us would call the unexamined life “a nice break.”
Among the writers who influenced Zasada the most while crafting shore, he cites Dostoevsky and EM Forester for building characters that weren’t exceptional—people who led very regular lives, but who still grappled with the biggest questions while pondering their own existence. “I think everyone’s life is a philosophical journey where you keep trying to figure it out,” Zasada says. “Or maybe that’s a plague of modern man.”
Another aspect of modernity that concerns Zasada is the effect of the past on the present. Throughout the cycle, Zasada revisits certain characters to show how they develop over time, while individual stories also portray seemingly minor events, letters, or encounters that eventually flow out and have a profound effect on his main characters themselves or how they influence others. never even meet. For Zasada, that tension between past and present was an important theme that runs throughout the book. “It’s about the way one little thing can change everything and how we live with that tension all the time,” he says.
coasts also has other cosmic implications – God himself appears, sometimes with dark humorous effect, such as when he orchestrates major twists and turns in the story “Certain Inevitability” – but they don’t provide the characters with easy, definitive answers. Rather, these elements reflect Zasada’s own openness to different traditions; he was raised Catholic but converted to Judaism as an adult and has studied both Buddhism and Islam.
That wide-ranging influence is especially palpable in “The Dignity of Man,” which follows Mafaz, a Pakistani man who loves Western culture and idealizes California. (That story ranks as Zasada’s personal favorite, as he spent time in Pakistan in the early 1980s, a journey that left him with a lasting emotional connection to the country.) Like Zasada himself, each of his characters combines things from different religions. , philosophies and their own ideas. For him, they all strive to create a story for their own lives. “When they do that,” Zasada says, “they create their own philosophies. And I think we all do….We’re always putting things together.”
Zasada is currently working on a non-fiction book that will approach some similar ideas through a different lens, namely what success and failure mean in today’s world. He’s not sure when he’ll return to fiction, but he remains drawn to how people in today’s world are constantly rethinking their lives. For him, that is perhaps the real scourge of modernity. “There is a sense of a bigger or more passionate life that we could lead. We can’t really define it, but we always try to find it.”
Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator based in Paris.