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BOOK REVIEW

A couple caught in a Gray area

Vacation A Novel Deb Olin Unferth McSweeney's: 216 pp., $22

December 21, 2008|Chris Daley | Daley is a Los Angeles-based writer.

The first half of Deb Olin Unferth's debut novel, "Vacation," is largely devoted to the dissolution of a marriage between a man named Myers and his nameless wife. Myers' wife begins to spend her evenings following a man named Gray through a somewhat sinister cityscape. Myers follows close behind, unnoticed. Though the plot creates suspense -- Why is Myers' wife following someone who turns out to be her husband's college acquaintance? Will the couple ever reveal their secret followings? -- it is primarily the novel's language play that pulls one along.

Unferth's descriptions of the couple's relationship highlight the foolishness of believing you can truly know anyone or anything. In the beginning, the couple's normalcy "was stunning and thorough. It wasn't this fun house he lived in now -- distorted images, trapdoors, a lurching car." The narrative voice is beguiling -- a distant, bleak but compelling observer who will suddenly confront the reader or Myers with direct questions. Unferth disorients and often enchants with her ability to slightly skew the world and render it anew.

Unferth's language captures the joys and burdens of the mundane -- humans as creatures of routine, "each in our own mortal slipcase" -- but she is also adept at capturing the intricacies of coupledom:

"To be accurate, they had not fought about most things. They had not fought about the shape of certain objects, never disagreed about whether an object was round or tall. . . . It wasn't about arguing, of course, but one of them seemed to decide to pretend it was about the arguing and the other without saying so agreed and then there was no going back." The avoidance of confrontation becomes claustrophobic, and the marriage implodes. Throughout the novel, the tension between relationships and individual quests shows "how unobservant people are, how focused they are on themselves and their own crusades."

Leaving the love triangle unresolved, Gray disappears to Nicaragua and Myers pursues him into the alien landscape: "[T]he entire affair was too hot, as if a madman had come along and heated the place up -- really outrageous -- and everyone walking around as if it were normal, as if the heat were the least interesting outrageous experience of the day." Myers' wife is left behind to relate her story of lifelong alienation to an unidentified listener.

At this point, narrative carnival replaces the order of urban following. The tale of a young woman and her estranged father, a dolphin "untrainer," undermines the hierarchy of Myers' story until the chapters are bouncing back and forth between voices. The story's climax is intentionally absurd, uniting all the characters around the release of a dolphin into the wild by a motley crew of government ministers, filmmakers, bikini-clad women and soda can-throwing waiters. Unferth plays with the ideas of vacation and "to vacate" -- "Vacations come in all sorts: the overdue, the one-stop, the unlikely" -- but she also excavates the familiar for the reader's pleasure. As Myers' wife observes, sometimes all we have is "the dim conviction that we have expressed ourselves vividly."

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