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Deb Olin Unferth's Vacation

The Stop Smiling Review

(McSweeney's)

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Sunday, October 12, 2008


Vacation
By Deb Olin Unferth
(McSweeney’s)

Reviewed by Nate Martin

Few contemporary novels express the brief, dumb drag of existence as well as Vacation. Unferth lumps each page under the confounding multiplicity of options and possibilities that face humans in every moment of postmodern reality, but keeps the story artfully lugging forward as scenarios that were ludicrous to begin with are played out by characters who were doomed from the start.

Two daughters search for their fathers; one by choice, one by chance. Two wives abandon their husbands; one in a more conventional manner than the other. Almost every minor character the reader encounters has already left or been left by someone. And an unremarkable man with an oddly shaped head named Myers flies from New York to Nicaragua to find a man named Gray, who he pretends to be convinced is to blame for the inevitable decay of his marriage.

Early in their matrimony, Myers discovers that his wife wanders for hours around the city following Gray, whom she has never met and who never detects her presence during his own aimless contemplative traipsing. Gray is a vague college acquaintance of Myers’, and equally unremarkable: “Myers could remember no award of any sort being given to the man. No sailing trophy, no honor roll, no debate club. No special interests, no reading Mein Kampf on the quad or passing out religious pamphlets, no part in any play.” Myers’ wife grows despondent — the bright star in his otherwise uncharmed life fades away — and he begins his vengeful quest after Gray.

The overt pleasures of Vacation lie mainly in its language. Unferth is relentless in the creative decisions she makes at nearly every turn of phrase, which often result in a deadpan humor that would render passages completely hilarious had she not set them within such a grim context. But she did.

The movement of Vacation does not come from following its characters’ jaunts across countries and oceans — it works more like looking through a telescope that’s being slowly focused. What initially appears to be a cast of irrational people attempting to deal with their problems in odd but forceful ways becomes an increasingly crisp picture of pitiful souls, blindfolded, swinging their fists at nothing in the dark.

“Here is the story,” Unferth writes. “A man leaves a place. A man leaves another place. And another. And another. He has to keep leaving and sometimes it is good and sometimes it is not, but mostly not. It is just a series of departures, of doors closing, a briefcase snapping shut.”

Vacation is Unferth’s first novel, released one year after McSweeney’s published her first collection of short stories, Minor Robberies. Both works explore the travesties of travel and the comical pointlessness of our worldly pursuits, but Vacation is the more depressing of the two. Its neurotic, lovesick fools bumble among earthquakes and dolphin trainers, and eventually illustrate the novel’s great lesson: that, try as we might, problems of the human heart and head are often simply unfixable.

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