Thursday 16 October 2008

Vacation, Deb Olin Unferth

Vacation (Mcsweeneys)This book is typeset, designed and manufactured with wonderful skill and attention to detail. The paper's so soft you could use it to upgrade your baby's bottom. Holding the book in your hands feels luxurious; reading from it is a privilege.

In comparison, the novel itself was just okay. It's nicely written, if a bit bland. The narration is arch and distanced, which suits the subject matter but becomes a bit dull after a while. It jumps around in time quite a bit, often from one paragraph to the next - as a result it gives away the ending long before you get there, making the rest of the book a bit of a chore. Maybe that's too strong a word, because the rest is still fairly enjoyable to read, but from about halfway in you stop learning anything new about anything that's going on, other than the minor details; you're just watching things play out in more or less the way you expected, and my enthusiasm for the book waned the longer it took to get there.

The other main problem is that the plot relies upon the characters being stupid, and not just normal everyday people stupid, but Neighbours stupid. By that I mean the type of plot where a character is angry or suspicious about something their partner is up to, but they don't just try to clear things up - purely because that would short-circuit the plot. Instead, they decide their partner would have told them already if they really loved them, and stew about it until their partner leaves them for being such a grump. The entire plot of this novel derives from such dopiness. Maybe it makes sense for these characters to not talk to each other - the author gives them reasons for not doing so - but over the course of years it's hard to believe no one ever got drunk and said something like, "So, you've been following this guy around?" or "Tell me about the time you jumped out of a window."

The story makes a bit more sense to me when considered as a metaphor, or a fable, and the characters as symbols, of what we do in life, for questions of leaving and staying, and so on. There's something being said about relationships, and following each other, and routes not taken, and that kind of thing. But I'm not sure I agree with what is being said. The worst that can happen to a married couple in this book is to sit and watch television together, and then talk about it. That really didn't seem so bad to me: in fact, the characters could really have done with watching a few daft sitcoms to remind themselves what laughter felt like. Almost every character in the book was utterly humourless; to the point of inhumanity, even.

If Vacation had been a film by Wes Anderson, perhaps I would have loved it; if it had an appropriate soundtrack to put me in the right frame of mind; if the characters had been played by actors I like and trust enough to follow on a strange journey; if the foreign locations had been shot in living beauty by a master cinematographer. It had a lot in common with The Darjeeling Limited: both feature characters questing in exotic foreign lands, and both are meticulously crafted, deliberate, and confident of their own worth. But where The Darjeeling Limited instantly became one of my all-time favourite films, Vacation was just that little bit underwhelming.

But take everything I say with a handful of salt: any book lacking aliens or spaceships will struggle to make me totally happy. (I only got through David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia by pretending it was set on Arrakis.) That I even finished this book, despite its shortcomings in the extraterrestrial department, shows it must have been pretty good. All credit to McSweeney's Book Club for getting me to try something new. If I've focused on the negative, it's only because those things preoccupied me while I was reading it: others may find much to love in this book.

Vacation, Deb Olin Unferth, McSweeney's, hb, 240pp.

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