Jordan Sonnenblick’s 2007 middle grade novel Zen and the Art of Faking It
asks the question: can a preteen construct an identity from scratch, random chance, and the oblivious stereotypes generated by his peers? For the protagonist of this funny and sarcastic novel, the answer is a resounding yes – until all the lies he has been telling in support of his newfound “self” catch up with him, that is.
The novel opens when twelve-year-old San Lee moves from Houston to the small town of Harrison, Pennsylvania – yet another in a series of almost yearly moves around the country that San and his family have dealt with throughout his life. So far, the displacements have happened because San’s father is a criminal and con artist who is always trying to be one step ahead of the law. But this time, the move seems permanent: San’s dad is in prison after being caught in one of his endless swindles, and San and his mom are on their own as she struggles to make ends meet for the two of them in her nursing job.
The move means that San is yet again the new kid in the eighth grade of Harrison Middle School. Each time he has started a new school, he has tried out a different identity: jock, skater, prep, goth, emo. What should he be this time, he wonders? The identity he ends up with, Buddha Boy, comes up by accident when he volunteers some facts about Buddhism that he had learned in a history class in his previous school. Because he is Chinese, his peers assume that his knowledge comes from some kind of Zen spiritual practice – and San decides to just lean into their ignorance, becoming the “Zen Man with a Zen Plan.”
Using some of the tricks he’s picked up from his father’s cons, San starts to build up his Zen master street cred. Before each school day, he sits on a rock outside the building pretending to meditate, wears socks and sandals to school in the winter, and – most importantly – tells everyone around him that he has no need of “earthly attachments.”
This last detail runs into a bit of a snag when San meets a wild-haired girl singing while playing her beat-up acoustic guitar in the school cafeteria. Her name is Emily Long, but she goes by Woody – and when she actually starts a conversation with him, San develops an enormous crush on her. The problem is, people who want no earthly attachments can’t exactly go around asking girls out on dates.
Still, San and Woody become friends. The more time they spend together, the more San runs afoul of Peter, Woody’s older stepbrother, whose overprotective streak makes him mean and suspicious of this new boy hanging around his younger sister. Nevertheless, they manage to find moments of peace, where they ends up sharing personal stories with each other. San learns that Woody’s mom left her and her father when Woody was little. Her dad married Peter’s mom, who is nice enough, but Woody gave herself her odd nickname as a tribute to her birth mom’s favorite singer, Woody Guthrie. San tries to tell Woody some personal things about himself, but almost everything he tells her is a lie: that his mom and dad are also Chinese when in reality he is adopted and his parents are white, that both his parents live with him when in reality his dad won’t be getting out of prison anytime soon.
In order to keep up his Zen master character, San ends up having to do a lot of research on Buddhism and its practice.
Unexpectedly, the more San learns about Buddhism, the more he applies his knowledge to his real life. For example, San and Woody are assigned to do a project on Zen Buddhism, for which they work at a soup kitchen washing dishes. They also use San’s research to help the middle school’s basketball B Team to use Zen to up their game enough to beat the A Team in a tournament. But still, San finds it hard to connect to his well-meaning mother, and does all he can to avoid his father’s weekly phone calls from prison by either scheduling his soup kitchen work for that time, or hiding out in the library. However much San is benefiting relative strangers, his secrecy and unhelpful attitude put his mother in an incredibly hard situation.
San’s lies eventually catch up with him. Peter ends up figuring out that at least some of what San has told Woody isn’t true, so he confronts San. Cornered, San admits that he has been lying to everyone about himself all along and asks for forgiveness. Furious, Woody starts to ignore San entirely. Outraged on her behalf, Peter doesn’t accept San’s apology and instead punches him.
Most of the kids in his class no longer talk to San after this revelation, but as he comes to terms with what he has done, San decides to start coming to school as himself rather than as a fake character. At the same time, he continues working in the soup kitchen and starts volunteering at the library as well. After a few weeks, he is surprised when Woody shows up at the soup kitchen during his shift. The novel ends with the suggestion that Woody has forgiven San, and that their friendship might now turn into something more.