A Review of Deb Olin Unferth’s Vacation

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Obsession distorts the lens through which we view the world; things that once seemed unfathomable become terrifically and terrifyingly plausible.

Vacation, Deb Olin Unferth’s captivating debut novel, is, among other things, an off-kilter ode to obsession. Obsession distorts the lens through which we view the world; things that once seemed unfathomable become terrifically and terrifyingly plausible. Such is the story for Myers, the character at the center of Vacation. Before separating from his wife, Myers discovers that she has started following a man, Gray, and begins following her (and, consequently, Gray) himself, along the way becoming fixated on the motives of all involved:

“Best-case scenario: the guy had committed a crime she had witnessed. Another guy had committed a crime and this man was the victim. She needed to tell him something. Someone paid her to follow him… There were other reasons—political, philosophical, messianic. She expected terrible or wonderful events to stem from him. She had gone mad.”

Of course, none of these conjectures adequately explains his wife’s compulsion; her reasons remain enigmatic, though unfailingly compelling, even to herself. Myers and his wife, never able to engage in direct confrontation, can only wander their unnamed, Manhattan-esque city, like two ships with malfunctioning navigational equipment circling each other in the night. Not surprisingly, the increasingly intricate web of secrecy, deception, obsession, and passive-aggressive rage leads to the dissolution of Myers’ marriage and his anguished hunt for Gray.

Myers, as it turns out, is acquainted with Gray from his college days and sets out to confront the man who so gravely upset his life. The men connect via e-mail, setting meetings in Syracuse and then in Nicaragua. Gray is absent at both meetings, sending Myers on a chase that leads to a rather desolate corner of the earth—the missed meetings and missed connections serving as a painful mirror of the disconnect between Myers and his wife. In a sense, Unferth is working with a familiar form: the quest, the journey, the stranger comes to town, though the novel moves in a decidedly existential direction. Gray is the Godot that never comes, leaving Myers to wade through dark and nebulous emotional terrain – not to mention an earthquake, travel problems, and the various other misfortunes he encounters en route to his showdown with Gray.

In addition to the Myers/Gray/Wife story, other narrative threads are afoot. Most significantly, there’s the story of Claire, who is searching for her real father, a rogue dolphin trainer. As the novel progresses, Claire and Myers’ narratives intersect beautifully, both technically and thematically, and the passages narrated by Myers’ wife and Gray are equally compelling. The narratives of the central players are interspersed with interjections from peripheral characters, a “chorus” which serves to demonstrate that Myers and his wife are not the only ones in the grips of obsession.

Unferth eschews many conventions—i.e. resolution, traditional character development, and, to a degree, plausibility. Vacation is rooted in neither the world that most readers will recognize as their own or an unmistakably non-realist landscape. Instead, the logic of the novel is reminiscent of an Antonioni film, like The Passenger, but with more heart and vibrancy. The characters’ desires are driven by the cosmic, though they do also ache for concrete things: wife, father, satisfactory answers, someone to blame.

The strength and precision of Unferth’s language goes a long way toward holding the novel together. She specializes in a kind of spare beauty punctuated by striking moments of high style:

“A man struggling in water looks somewhat like the inside of a jewel box or a crystal. The tiny bubbles shine whitely and sparkle. The more the man thrashes, the more it seems that gems and bits of silver and pearl are falling around him, as if he were caught inside a heavy opera costume, as if he were crashing through the stained glass of a cathedral, as if he were wrapped in air and light.”

Her aptitude for both lean, piercing descriptive moments and more maximalist turns results in a richly textured, often surprising linguistic landscape.

It is a formidable task to produce work that asks “the big questions” in a way that does justice to the enormity of those questions, that gives compelling voice and sight to the chaos, the sheer implausibility, of human existence and history, what Steven Millhauser calls “the blazing thing that deserves the name of reality.” Unferth’s imaginative, fractured, uncompromising Vacation is urgently contemporary without failing to strike at the heart of the most enduring human concerns.

Laura van den Berg’s first story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was published by Dzanc Books in 2009. More from this author →