Once in a while I stumble upon a novel that's so honest and has a structure that's so original, it feels like the author poured the words directly out of his or her head. Deb Olin Unferth's first novel Vacation is one of these. It combines an experimental style and a heartbreaking plot to shake readers awake and then force us to care for her characters.
Vacation's plot is so tangled that it takes an attentive reader to unravel it. It's about a man (Myers) following his wife who is in turn stalking Myers's college friend (Gray). It's also about a woman (Claire) who follows Myers thinking he looks like her father who's a dolphin un-trainer. (If there are dolphin trainers, why couldn't there be un-trainers? This is how Unferth's mind works.) There are more characters and narrative streams in Vacation than in a room full of schizophrenics watching Lost. If this sounds too complicated, then this book is not for you.
Only Myers and Gray receive the privilege of third-person narration, while every other character (and there are plenty) tell their stories in diary form. The third-person narration doesn't even flow according to convention. I'm not sure I've ever read a novel in which a narrator argues with herself.
Vacation was much darker than I expected. Every character is disturbed and isolated in his or her own way. It's not that any of them are bad or depressing people, but rather it's their relationships that make the novel bleak. Few human relations are simple, but none of Unferth's characters have tragedy-free interactions. The story lines (Gray's schism with his wife, Claire's search for her father, Claire's father's quest to save the dolphins, a former Nicaraguan soldier's homecoming) weigh the plot down and Unferth seems unwilling to commit to following them through to the end. To fulfill the premise of the story, Unferth would've needed access to Pynchon's personal stock of blank paper.
By the end, it seems like Unferth chose to call her book "Vacation" because "Heart of Darkness" was taken. This title is redefined often. When Myers chases Gray to Nicaragua in order to find out about his wife's stalking habits, he abandons everything, including his marriage and his job (his boss's attempt to remain understanding is one of the most comedic moments in the novel). Myers's debate with his wife over whether or not divorce could be considered a vacation is shattering.
Unferth's style is unlike anything I've ever read and yet feels surprisingly familiar. Dave Eggers readers will feel comfortable with her conversational tone, but it's her attention to detail that makes the novel. The author blows up words like balloons and then twists them together to form intricate balloon animal sentences -- balloon animals of pain and sorrow. It took me two or three reads of "Just a piece of cloth, cut, dyed, arranged, and sealed together with thread to approximate the shape of his body," to realize Unferth was writing about clothes and not some sort of flannel body bag. But what are clothes but that? Unferth examines the meaning of words that we take for granted by pushing their definitions to the limits.
Vacation is a thrilling novel packed into just over 200 pages. Although it can't quite live up to its ambitious foundation, it's definitely a worthwhile read. Anyone who enjoys the dark quirk of McSweeney's books will love Vacation and anyone who hasn't tried them out should. Unferth's first novel certainly shows a lot of promise. I'm not sure if next time she'll tighten the scope or increase the page count, but if she sticks to her style she'll have more good material to come.