Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Vacation, A Review Of A More Serious Nature

Hello, readers.

Recently I said I might begin reviewing things on occasion. I began with Zombie Vampire Robots from Space!

Later, I may take a look at such classics as Octaman or Futureworld.

Today, though, I take a look at a book called Vacation. It was written by Deb Olin Unferth. Here is how I saw it.


Deb Olin Unferth
McSweeney's, 2008
240 pp.

What a strange, wonderful, and sad book this is. Inside it one finds all sorts of people looking for a way out of all sorts of places. A woman out of her marriage. A man out of his heartbreak. A boy out of his window. A daughter out of her loneliness.

It begins with a girl on a train. One of the better ways to begin, really. This girl’s going somewhere, but we don’t know where. The girl’s name is Claire. As she relates to us her story of having a dead mother, of becoming poor, of learning that her father wasn't her father, she keeps coming back to her mother's favorite sentence, "You won't even feel it." That was what her mother said all the time. It doesn’t seem all that right, though. Claire feels things. She feels sorry for the man beside her, for example, a man with a dented head who reminds her of her father that wasn't.

The man with the dented head gets off the train before Claire. She feels sad to see him go.

The man's name is Myers. He's searching for a man named Gray. He takes a taxi. Later, we will learn that he’s searching for Gray because his wife had been in the habit of following Gray and Myers had been in the habit of following his wife and now that his wife is gone, Myers wants to understand what all that following was about. He knocks on Gray's door. No one's home. Myers waits. He hopes. Eventually, he goes looking somewhere else.

As the story follows Myers along to elsewhere, it collects, and floats, among several characters’ points of view. We continue to spend time with Claire and Myers, but also with Gray himself, as well as Myers' wife, an exiled Nicaraguan man returning home, Claire's father, a volunteer nurse, a kind-hearted mother, and, for one sublime moment, a sexy bikini girl on a boat in a hurricane as she watches Myers do something impossible.

All of the characters here are following something, whether it’s a father, a dream, or a bird.

This is Deb Olin Unferth’s first novel. She published a previous collection of short stories called, Minor Robberies. That collection, and this novel, were both published by McSweeney’s, which, as a publisher, tends to fancy stories that possess much whimsy and sparse description. And that is what we find in Ms. Unferth’s first novel. She crafts a thoroughly believable world in which people untrain dolphins and boys jump out of windows and at least one impossible thing happens. She leaves the great majority of that world to the reader’s imagination.

Scattered about the book are letters written between Myers and his estranged wife, and between Myers and Gray. There's something always a bit desperate about a letter. Someone talking about themselves and waiting, hoping, that someone responds.

Myers composes one letter while in Nicaragua, under a building which fell on him during an earthquake.

The letter he dreams says this:

My dearest wife,

Today I saw collections of documents, works of art, phenomena described by books. I walked through fields. I went to a town filled with more tourists than citizens--tourists sitting in seats, tourists rising to occasions, large tourists, small tourists, tourists frozen in an arabesque on the stairs.

As I am alive, I am your husband.

Myers never sends this letter. A lot of the distance in this novel comes from so many letters dreamed and unsent, or if bravely sent, then sadly misunderstood.

Vacations are, as a rule, an escape from everyday life. They are taken by families and businesspeople in the hopes of shaking things up a bit. Recharging the batteries as it were. However far you wander, though, to far-off lands, or nearby amusement parks, there is always the comforting notion—if a bit sad and necessary, perhaps—that at the end of your journey there is the return home.

The trip back to the way things were before.

Here, though, Ms. Unferth sets her characters leaping, jumping, falling, and flying after things, but there’s little chance of anyone making it home again.

There is no more before for these characters. There is only what’s in front of them. What leads them on.

Some of them realize this and are brave enough to jump without anyone to show them the way.

Others do not.

In either case, they are all waiting and hoping to feel something before all’s said and done. They all live, as they can, in the new lives they've fallen into. They swim with dolphins. They set dolphins free. They follow men around for no particular reason. None of it really makes any kind of sense. But it is what happened. And it is wonderful and sad. You'll feel something by the time you’re through, readers. I promise.


Other things of interest. An interview with Deb Olin Unferth at Bookslut.

A short story by Ms. Unferth, "Things That Went Wrong Thus Far," what you can read for free.


Until next time, readers.


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