Enlightenment meets traffic jams in Zen City

“The future begins with a traffic jam.”

This is how Eliot Fintushel described to me the setting of Zen City (Zero Books, 2016), his science fiction novel about the obstacles encountered along the path to spiritual fulfillment, when I interviewed him on the new episode of New Books in Science Fiction.

In Fintushel’s book, the quest for enlightenment manifests as a physical journey as his protagonist, Big Man, makes his way from an eternal traffic jam (in which people have been rooted so long on a highway exit ramp that they’ve created cults around their Econoline vans and Chevrolet Chevelles) to the City, where those who have achieved true enlightenment are literally merged into a single body-consciousness that transcends reality as we know it.

More than a commentary on Buddhism, the story is a meditation on religion and the challenge of using “robes and rituals” to find enlightenment, Fintushel explains. The problem is when enlightenment itself becomes a sign of status, he says, undermining the goal of enlightenment, which is supposedly a state of “no status.”

Fintushel’s adventure is both poetic and funny, meditating on language as much as belief. He is playing with the “limits of identifying things,” evoking the viewpoint of a baby. “If you watch a baby’s eyes moving around, they don’t fix on objects or even on people the way we do. They don’t have categories of objects and people. And I’m assuming, for the sake of the fiction anyway, that that’s more real than the reality of objects and things and people.”

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