In Deb Olin Unferth's Vacation, people are always following each other from one place to another, starting with Myers, a middling office worker whose main distinguishing characteristic is a dent in his skull from jumping out a window when he was young. When he discovers that his wife is spending her evenings following a man named Gray through the streets of New York City, he begins to follow her himself, a process that stretches wordlessly through the first two years of their marriage. Later, after Myers and his wife decide to separate, Myers goes looking for Gray directly, leading to yet another chase that takes him across the Americas in search of a man who, if not exactly a rival, is still the closest thing Myers has to a cause for the dissolution of his marriage. There are other characters throughout the book who have their own loved ones or enemies to follow, each of their stories intersecting the love triangle of Myers, his wife, and Gray, until the book is just one more place for its characters to get lost in, to lose sight of their goals, to find, if not what they were looking, then maybe something they needed instead.
Unferth's first book was a slim volume of flash fiction titled Minor Robberies published as part of a boxed set called One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in a Small Box, which also included collections of short-shorts by Dave Eggers and Sarah Manguso. In Minor Robberies, Unferth showed off a remarkable talent for odd characters and tightly compressed language, two qualities that are often found in great flash writers but rarely translate directly to their longer works. Not so with Unferth. Her language in Vacation is a triumph of tightly wound sentences, each one compact and powerful and simply waiting for the reader's eye to allow it to spring forth into action. For instance, consider the following paragraph, one of the many imagined speeches Myers considers giving Gray when he finally finds him:
What's that you say? You don't know what this is about? Maybe a little drill in the earhole will jog your memory. Maybe a little claw of the old clawhammer to the knee. Maybe some take-out, as in, let's take this outside. As in, let's take your fingers outside, one by one, toss them out the window. Then let's see what you know and don't.
Small satisfactions, and who knows, maybe big ones too.
Here, Unferth dips in close, the narrator's voice giving way to Myers's internal dialogue, but in other places it zooms in and out, swooping here and there for views of different characters and for different perspectives on now familiar events. Like a long single-shot film sequence, Unferth's prose is capable of following a series of events linearly while simultaneously shifting point of view and distance to great effect. This technique is used from the first page on but becomes more complex as the book progresses, culminating in stunningly intricate chapters such as the one in which Myers's wife "confesses," a chapter which contains at least four perspectives (Myers, his wife, a man named Spoke, and the narrator's), all rendered differently from paragraph to paragraph without losing continuity or cohesion. The amount of technical skill this takes is extraordinary, but Unferth makes it look easy, connecting chapter to chapter with a virtuoso display of writing ability.
As the story progresses, the obstacles begin to pile up against Myers, starting with such pedestrian problems as losing his job or Gray not being at home when Myers goes looking for him, but eventually ranging all the way up to a series of natural disasters (he suffers through both an earthquake and an impending hurricane). Still, his search continues for Gray and for answers to why his marriage soured and then fell apart. Along the way, he meets other travelers – other vacationers – each of them looking for something or someone else. In a book that often use description as a means of definition (such as when Myers's packed luggage is referred to as "just pieces of cloth, cut, dyed, arranged, and sealed together with thread to approximate the shape of his body"), it takes almost the entire book before the prose turns its attention to what a vacation itself really is:
A vacation is simply, you know, to vacate. The vacationer leaves the home (leaves the mind), leaves the home empty (except for what he left behind (her)), that's all.
No, no, that's not a vacation, if you simply move to a different spot. That's just looking at stuff, familiar stuff.
What's so familiar about this? Myers would certainly like to know.
As Myers discovers the nature of his vacation, he also discovers the truth of his marriage, of how he and his wife have perhaps both failed each other by vacating their mutual home in search of answers instead of looking for them in each other. Unferth's great triumph here is how she depicts this marital dissolution using not only her gift for magnificent, sharp prose, but her ability to see how sometimes the tiniest events can set off chain reactions of doubt and deceit, allowing her story to grow like a grain of sand that eventually becomes a pearl. Vacation is a remarkable and ambitious must-read, and Unferth herself an exciting writer to keep watch on. Without a doubt, there are more great things still to come.