Review: Vacation by Jeremy Shipp
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Vacation by Jeremy Shipp
Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2007
Trade Paperback, 159 pages ($13.95)
ISBN: 978-1-933293-41-7 (paper) / 978-1-933293-40-0 (hard)
I had to take a step back after reading Vacation to realize it really is as imaginative as it's advertised as being, because it's not so much the usual suspects, like the crazy plot antics or the political interpolations, that impressed me, but the parts that were presented more matter-of-factly, the characters and the interactions. The novel's main character, Bernard Johnson, suspends himself from his prestigious job and prestigious relationships to take his medicated, ennui-filled self off on the Vacation, a free year-long trip provided to each citizen by the oh-so-benevolent U.S. government. But he's sidetracked into the Garden, a more-or-less-terrorist more-or-less stronghold where he's detoxed and deconstructed, then shown the world as it is outside the bubble he's been limited to thus far. It's a twist, though not a very radical one, on the classic hero's journey—but in each part of the journey, the goal Bernard thinks he has is just a slight angle off from what turns out to be the real end. And fitting in with the hero-journey theme, Shipp throws in a few more classic character-types, including guides, foils, virgins, geniuses, and even a bona fide Jester, but they're all nicely fleshed-out, so you have to work to recognize them as types. The characters in Vacation aren't exactly what you'd call believable, but they are true, and that's more important.
Vacation is a novel with a lot of interesting ideas in it and a lot of problems. (In fact, Vacation has been referred to as a Novel of Ideas.) Many of those ideas weren't as new to me as they may have been to some, but then, I read a lot of anti-corporate-globalization, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist writing, including some that's dropped off the far edge of paranoia. (Not that I’m saying Vacation is necessarily any of those things, per se, but it draws on the relevant paradigms to build the particular possible future of its setting.) A lot of other reviewers seem to think this novel really wild and crazy, and not that I don't think it's an original take, but if you've never thought about this stuff before...well, read Vacation and get thinking, because you should be! It's a good meditation on the possible outcomes of Progress, and it usually manages not to be preachy. And as the characters point out, certain ideas are best encountered in fiction first, before they bite you on the ass in reality.
Besides its political ideas, Vacation also has plenty of interesting and thought-provoking musings on the intertwining and conflict of personal goals with political or artistic ones, the vagaries of human nature, the question of deserving what we get, and the importance of eating your vegetables—mixed in with a lot of hot air from Bernard, the former-English-teacher narrator. (In case you miss anything, the important ideas are repeated, in a way that is usually more interestingly refrain-like—a Chorus, perhaps?—than annoying. Usually.) His characterizations of the world around him, in pithy analogies and humorous tangents, can be quite clever when they work—and when they don't, their particular brand of annoyingness does fit the character. Shipp is one of those writers who bases his craft on being a good social analyst; that's mostly a good thing, but there are almost more observations about the contradictions of—and the nifty things about—our society and humanity in general packed into the space of this short novel than it can hold.
In fact, Shipp could have written a much longer book with the same basic content; this book is good and spare, mostly without feeling too abbreviated. In general, it's nice to have a bit of a challenge, to have to fill in some of the emotional details for oneself, though there are a few points of character development and relationships on which it might have been nice to have a bit more to go on; at times I felt more like I was giving the author the benefit of the doubt than accepting a challenge. In any case, the novel is never boring, even the parts that are just the narrator whining—but interestingly, I didn't find the bits that would usually be called action sequences particularly more exciting than the rest; the book is very evenly paced.
As for the problems.... Well, most of the things I found problematic about the novel came at me full-force with the introduction; I half-suspect the author of trying to warn off the faint of heart. So if you can get through that, you know what you're in for, and at least things don't get much worse. The introduction frames the whole novel as a personal letter from the narrator to his parents and advertises that we're in for an abrasive read. The intro is clumsily written at various levels, and though I'd like to think that's on purpose because it's supposed to be a personal letter, I frankly suspect the author was just trying too hard to get a certain feel and not paying much attention to the details. The letter-frame (and the attitude of the narrator in writing it) isn't necessarily plausible in the context of the whole book, but it's an integral part of the way it's written. There are a number of such small implausibilities, as well as a couple of discontinuities and general factual unlikelihoods, scattered throughout the book, along with more low-level editing problems, but it's not bad for a first novel.
As the book goes on, the character changes and one gets more used to his abrasiveness anyway, so it ceases to interfere as much. One can fall into the rhythm and special logic of the story and be captivated by its charms—and I, at least, certainly was.
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