Deb Olin Unferth’s Holiday in Delirium


Vacation, Deb Olin Unferth’s dreamy, surreal debut novel, reads like an extended hallucination or out-of-body experience, as unsettling as it is compelling. The fragmented narrative is an intricate cross-hatch of character and misprision: A man named Meyers stalks his wife, whom he suspects is having an affair with an old acquaintance named Gray. The wife, never named, follows Gray across Manhattan, but it’s a random, compulsive pastime she engages in while her marriage unravels; she doesn’t know Gray, doesn’t know he’s her husband’s friend, doesn’t know that Gray’s own marriage has ended. Meanwhile, a young woman seeks the biological father she has never met, an eco-terrorist who liberates captive dolphins.

The action unfolds like a postmodern—or perhaps post-mortem—farce. Paths nearly cross, old friends nearly meet, lovers and parents and children almost reunite. Odd, sometimes absurdist correspondences between character and setting take the place of traditional plot. There are hints of posthumous fantasy, of reality filtered through delirium (Gray’s experiences are colored by the brain tumor he doesn’t know he has). E-mails, earthquakes, kidnapped dolphins, delayed flights, death are all given equal weight. The result is a post-realist novel, similar to Ed Park’s Personal Days, Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, or Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances.

Unferth’s prose is lovely, at once precise and startling: “A man struggling in water looks somewhat like the inside of a jewel box or a crystal. The tiny bubbles shine whitely and sparkle. The more the man thrashes, the more it seems that gems and bits of silver and pearl are falling around him, as if he were caught inside a heavy opera costume, as if he were crashing through the stained glass of a cathedral, as if he were wrapped in air and light.”

In many ways, Vacation functions more like a video installation than a novel. One catches multiple glimpses of Meyers’s marriage and his wife’s pursuit of Gray; of Gray’s slide into dementia and his wife’s futile attempts to find him in Managua. “We chase the thing we flee,” muses Meyers’s wife, but none of Vacation’s myriad pursuits end well: “Where do you go when you leave? Nowhere, it turned out.” Sometimes it’s safest just to stay home.

Elizabeth Hand’s novel Generation Loss recently received the first Shirley Jackson Award