blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1
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Review | Vacation, by Deb Olin Unferth
                McSweeney’s, 2008

spacer Vacation, by Deb Olin Unferth

The peculiarly shifting and disorienting milieu of the tourist makes it a natural subject for novelists. Some stories about travelers focus more on the travel destination than the adventures of the tourist. In others, the location, whether exotic or not, takes a backseat to the plot. Deb Olin Unferth’s Vacation plays to neither of these extremes. Rather, Unferth recasts the very idea of “vacation” in a tale as unsettling to ponder as it is satisfying to read. Her prose—by turns experimental, lyric, playful, and fragmented—weaves a complex, multivoiced narrative, thrusting the reader deep into the layers of her characters’ anxieties, ennui, and general dysfunction.

A man takes a vacation—on the surface, an utterly straightforward premise. But what if that man neglects to request time off from work before leaving town? What if that man’s erstwhile wife has just left him? What if instead of taking a cruise to a tropical beach or jetting to Europe, said man takes a train to . . . Syracuse, New York? And what if the college pal he intends to visit is out of town—on vacation himself? The notion of vacation, loosed from its familiar scenarios, quickly becomes something much more fluid, fascinating, and—ultimately—frightening, which, in the streamlined version of the plot, is precisely what happens in the case of Unferth’s protagonist, Myers.

Myers, seemingly on a whim, abruptly takes leave of his troubled marriage and unfulfilling career and embarks on a quest to track down and confront an old college acquaintance, Gray. The reader soon discovers much more lurking beneath—for one thing, Myers’s wife has her own secret obsessions, one in particular involving this fellow Gray. There’s also the matter of Myers’ oddly-shaped head.

With a structure that is far from linear, Unferth lets these and other mysterious details tease, disclosing them sometimes chapters (or continents) later—although not so late that the reader feels jet-lagged. The narrative’s back-and-forth contributes to a prismatic effect, filtering each scene through a new angle of a particular character’s experience and creating a brilliantly hued, if at times fractured, perspective. Layering nearly a dozen different characters’ voices into the narration (including those of Claire, a young woman searching for her father; a Nicaraguan nun; Spoke, a tourist in Nicaragua; and a dolphin “untrainer”), Unferth simultaneously dazzles us with a point-of-view tour de force, and reminds us that perception itself is fragmented and fallible.

Indeed, Unferth’s inventive prose prevails as one of the chief delights of Vacation. With witty and sometimes sad observations, she renders the familiar—suburban architecture, a hotel in Syracuse, electronic communication, one’s spouse—hauntingly recognizable yet strikingly fresh, and perhaps more menacing than we might realize:

The hotel room itself was worse, some sort of misunderstanding between human and machine, a mistake about the meaning of the word “clean.” . . . Or about the meaning of “convenient,” contraptions bolted into walls and tables as if built by an alien tribe based on descriptions read from dictionaries—lamp, remote control, pencil cup—so that it looked like a reconstruction by someone who had never seen the original. . . . A habitat for the human creature. . .

In the world as Unferth describes it, we find ourselves severely alienated from our surroundings—with good reason. And Myers is no exception: Unemployed, estranged from his wife, and adrift in a foreign country, he finds he is ultimately no more and no less “at home” than he was in his Manhattan apartment with his wife beside him on the couch. Thus, Unferth deftly enacts Georg Lukács’s conception of the novel as an expression of “transcendental homelessness.”

Vacation is Unferth’s first novel, and its thematic bent syncs neatly with her 2007 collection of short stories, Minor Robberies. Many of those stories also involve characters who are never really at home—always travelers, visitors, or tourists. Characters who, like Myers, while challenging the familiar tropes of the vacation, must also confront its conceptual flipside: the definitions of “home.” And, as Myers discovers, both notions are fraught with contradictions, caveats: “A vacation is simply, you know, to vacate. The vacationer leaves the home (leaves the mind), leaves the home empty (except for what he left behind (her)), that’s all.” Yet his wife insists, “Vacation doesn’t begin the same day you decide it. . . . You wait, you suffer.”

Myers’s bizarre—yet believable—journey takes him from Manhattan to Syracuse to Nicaragua to Corn Island off the Nicaraguan coast, through an earthquake, and finally to a boat in the Caribbean with a crew of biologists and reporters about to release an “untrained” dolphin back into open waters. But his motives, more than the journey itself, lend the narrative its realism. He wants to understand what went wrong in his marriage—and, by extension, his life in general—and he believes finding Gray will offer some answers. In the character of Myers, Unferth captures the more dire tendencies of human nature, from obsession to desperation to apathy, and the shadows of ourselves we see in him haunt us.

Despite this rather bleak vision, we find some real resonance in the way Unferth describes the Syracuse hotel where Myers spends the first night of his vacation:

Further proof of the great lack of imagination on the part of humanity: to look at the land and see the sameness that one sees in one’s heart. No one should spend their life going through places like this. One’s mind and soul may look like this, but to have to see it outside oneself was really just too much.

Our selves are inescapable, Unferth reminds us, no matter how many vacations we take—and in foreign lands as well as familiar ones, this realization both exhilarates and terrifies.  end

Deb Olin Unerth’s excerpted fiction, excerpted graphic novel, a conversation, and a reading, appear in Fiction, Gallery, and Features in this issue of Blackbird. See the First Novelist Reading Loop below for a full index of Unferth-related content.

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