Review: Vacation by Jeremy Shipp

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Vacation Cover

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.

- reddit, digg, facebook, stumbleupon, etc... please! ;)
posted by julia

34 comments; 0 subscribers

Tuesday, March 11, 2008 / 02:15:36
To win GUD's review copy of _Vacation_, leave a comment below telling us what's your favorite conspiracy theory. We'll choose one winner at random from the valid entries received. Contest open to U.S./Canada shipping addresses; closes on March 25 (midnight pacific time).
Tuesday, March 11, 2008 / 19:17:21
I would chew off my right arm to win this
Wednesday, March 12, 2008 / 09:58:19
I always liked the one about Bob Marley being a new messiah whose presence on earth was shortened by evil influences of the supernatural kind. There's some cool observations about this in the notoriously good biography of the Rastafari singer "Catch a Fire" by Timothy White".
That or the one that has coptic christians hiding the tablets of the law and the Ark of the Alliance in a secluded valley in Ethiopia; only some priests are allowed in...
Wednesday, March 12, 2008 / 13:13:40
I have it on good authority that the moon does not in fact exist. There are no mentions of the moon in English literature prior to 1066, so obviously the heavenly body did .

Most likely it is an object within the atmosphere and a hoax perpetrated, using unknown technologies, by NASA and other equivalent conspiratory agencies going back to at least 1066 AD.

Mathematically, according to Newtownian physics, it is impossible that a satellite of that purported size would orbit the Earth.

There are websites that prove this!
Wednesday, March 12, 2008 / 15:35:35
2nd shooter on the grassy knoll has always been my favorite
Wednesday, March 12, 2008 / 16:08:06
While “Elvis conspiracy theories” aren't particularly my cup of tea, one has stuck with me since I first heard it some ten or so years ago. It stuck with me for, in part, being practically stereotypical: by that I mean that its primary claim involved Elvis having been an extraterrestrial. That's all well and good, but it's boring by now. We've all heard it so many times. What we all haven't heard is that Elvis was never actually fat. That's right. This theory “explains” Elvis's “fat stage” as if it were a mystery, and the explanation is: that Elvis's alien body had a consistency much like a rubber balloon. When he got fat, that's because he was inflating himself, storing up pressurized gases, as it were, inside his abdomen over time. Why would he do this? So that he could eventually release them in one explosive burst, propelling himself into outer space to rejoin the mother ship.

Picture that for a moment. No, really, picture it!

If you have, now you know what the truth looks like.
Thursday, March 13, 2008 / 19:45:02
there are many conspicious theories: like did the moonlanding really happen or was it just staged in a hollywood studio
Friday, March 14, 2008 / 20:37:06
the moon landing didn't happen -- it's a fact
Monday, March 17, 2008 / 19:55:31
The one about GW Bush having an active role in 9-11 BEFORE it happened.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008 / 01:12:00
I rather like the idea that the whole earth is secretly ruled by a race of amphibians and that no one has noticed.

I always thought our Royal Family looked more horsey, myself.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008 / 10:55:34
I believe that the US governement really does know where to find the terrorists but choose not to inorder to justify maintaining the war and the war machine.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008 / 14:31:22
Barcodes are really intended to Control people - that's marketing for you.
Friday, March 21, 2008 / 10:15:42
The conspiracy theory that George W Bush was involved in the tragedies that ocurred on 9-11. How absurd!
Friday, March 21, 2008 / 13:22:38
The conspiracy with President Kennedy and the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa
Friday, March 21, 2008 / 15:57:20
i would buy a uniform different from any seen anywhere in the world. i would promote good cheer and peace
Sunday, March 23, 2008 / 06:13:39
i've always like the one about the moon landing being a hoax! i believe it too, i mean did u see the pics with the cross hatches UNDERNEATH the image???

that totally gives it away, and what about the airless wind blowing that flag, i mean come on people!!!
Sunday, March 23, 2008 / 09:05:50
New World Order - a powerful and secretive group plans to rule the world with a one government.
Sunday, March 23, 2008 / 21:25:33
the government brain washes us through the media! i'm gonna go get my foil hat.
Monday, March 24, 2008 / 15:03:52
Li'l Bush has a brain.
Monday, March 24, 2008 / 16:29:35
I find the idea of the moon landing conspiracy fascinating!
Monday, March 24, 2008 / 20:24:42
all those alien abduction ones
Monday, March 24, 2008 / 21:07:48
How the goverment cover up their knowledge of spaceships and aliens. Also the Bermuda triangle coverup. But the cover up of visiters from other gallaxies the worst. Of course there is others out there and they have visited us. Ok anyway. please enter me. would love to win. thanks.
Monday, March 24, 2008 / 21:24:28
I have to agree: if you want to be prepared for "Truth, stranger than Fiction", you have to get down in there and root around in the fiction every chance you get.

Kind of like sending your kids off to school to mingle with the OTHER germ-carrying bodies, so you stay in touch with the rapidly evolving social-network of microbial riders and the infiltration forces of... ah, hmm... anyway, you know what I mean.

And no, I'm not mentioning my favorite "conspiracy theory" again -- the LAST time, I got griped at for just how many PCs suddenly developed gaping holes in their disk file structures... Something to do with Echelon and zzs&^%485@ [stream terminated].
Tuesday, March 25, 2008 / 10:27:25
One prevailing conversation is that 9-11 didn't actually happen, that all the photos of the plane hitting the towers were photoshopped and that our own government took the towers down. If I believed that I would be moving out of the US as fast as I could go!
Tuesday, March 25, 2008 / 14:05:33
My favorite conspiracy theory is that the Moon Landing didn't happen it was a governnent conspiracy.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008 / 16:01:51
i belive we knocked our own twin towers down so we could start a war with the terrorists. i don't think they did it, i think we did it.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008 / 16:59:02
The moon landing.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008 / 17:40:14
Tuesday, March 25, 2008 / 19:54:54
The most ridiculous one ever-no doubt started by people with double digit IQ's- that we knocked down the twin towers ourselves to start a war.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008 / 20:23:29
That there are proof that there are!
Tuesday, March 25, 2008 / 21:27:42
alien abduction ones
Tuesday, March 25, 2008 / 21:34:13
I like the alien autopsy theories!
Tuesday, March 25, 2008 / 21:37:12
My favorite one is Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick incident.Edward Kennedy and Kopechne left the party together; a short time later, their car plunged off the Dike Bridge into a pond, where it overturned. Kopechne died in the car. Kennedy swam ashore but didn't report the accident until the next morning, later claiming he had been dazed by the crash
Tuesday, March 25, 2008 / 23:30:21
the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa

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