by Weston Cutter
I can’t remember how or why I picked up Deb Olin Unferth’s Vacation—I’m sure I was excited that it was a McSweeney’s book, and that the blurbs were from Aimee Bender and Diane Williams. I don’t really know what else there was, though, why I thought to heft the thing, turn those pages. Of course, like every human who has hefted/turned Vacation, I feel desperately, little-kid in love with the thing: the confident ease or whatever it was that allowed Unferth to so blithely craft this narrative that simply did, simply went propelled and which trusted the reader to follow, to get it, to keep up, to trust.
Plus to the above, for reasons having to do with this particular reviewer and having nothing to do with me, know the following: 1) McSweeney’s also published Unferth’s Minor Robberies in part of that little stories-in-a-box thing (there were I think supposedly 145 stories in that box), the one that featured Eggers and Manguso as well; 2) Deb Olin Unferth sends great postcards; 3) Unferth’s presently in New York, teaching at Wesleyan; 4) I’m 100% biased, or compromised anyway, in that the woman blurbed my own book (though I’d like to think I’d be strong-minded/-willed enough to call out a book’s badness, regardless of my emotional or otherwise proximity to the author). Anyway, that’s just info to bear in mind.
I’m tempted to say that those who should snap quickest up and read Revolution are those who read Vacation, tempted to say that the books are a strange little mirrory combo of Unferth’s life, or aspects of it, despite the fact that Vacation is a novel and Revolution is a memoir (subtitled: the year I fell in love and went to join the war). For those who are still getting to Vacation, the story involves a man following his wife who is following another man; things move from Syracuse to Central America; the driving questions (why’s he following? why’s she?) end up being less interesting than the ancillary ones (what’s the nature of searching vs. finding? and the relationship between knowledge and fact? and is there something generative in not knowing certain things clearly?), and the whole book, despite its size, ends up really being a sledgehammer of awesomeness, one which’ll knock you as sideways as any book you’ve let into your life.
And yes, certainly, those of us who come grateful and thrilled to Revolution with Vacation in mind or memory (or spleen or wherever it is readers keep old books) will find much excitement. Those Central American scenes in Vacation? There was probably quite a bit of actual first-hand experience that led to them (I don’t know why stuff like this matters, the fiction/reality overlap, but I know it’s true: Wallace’s Jest felt/feels more because of his drug use and tennis playing as the quickest/easiest example). The compulsion/desire to stalk someone, and, through stalking, discover something one believes findable (that’s gnarly to write, I know, but we’ve all done this—it’s the hope we’ll discover why we want to hang out with someone by hanging out with that person)—that’s huge in Revolution, that’s everything.
Because here’s the story: young Unferth (like early college, 18 or something) decamped to Nicaragua with her Christian boyfriend, the sort of guy all of us know or have met or have maybe been, the one who believes Changing the World is somehow an activity one goes elsewhere for. He wants to go help the Sandanistas claim their country.
This may not sound riveting, but it is, emphatically and fully. Unferth’s writing’s some of the finest, most taut stuff being put on paper in English, and the chapters through Revolution are short, several pages at most, episodic in a snapshotty way. Here, for instance, is “Parade” from page 75:
There was the day in San Salvador that we went to the plaza. It was more or less deserted except for the police forces, the military, and the guardia nacional. We spotted a few citizens moving through. I hadn’t wanted to come and now that there was so little to see, I hoped that meant we could leave. “You see?” I said to George. “Nothing here.” Suddenly we heard drums, the regular beat of western drumming, and a parade came marching along. No one saw it, except us and the soldiers and a thin line of locals who obligatorily assembled. In my memory it seems as if the parade was going by a few inches from my nose, so large I could see only hands, faces, drums, the white and red uniforms, the sway of the legs of the stilt walkers and the purple material of their costumes, their eyes through the masks. They stopped in the middle of the plaza. The drummers played a marching tune. The clowns and stilt walkers waved and teetered around. Then they all went on.
Please know that this episode is not immediately preceeded by a scene in which George and Deb were headed to the plaza; the chapter immediate before, in fact, was about Deb admitting to her mom that she’d suddenly gotten engaged. This associative (some’d say random) narrative construction—linear but not causal—has been a cool tool among a certain sort of stylist for awhile now, but Unferth’s actually using it for larger, stranger ends, too. Of course, what the style does, first and foremost, is force/allow the reader to draw intellectual/emotional connections between disparate events which, because they crowd each other chapterly, end up feeling like they’re related: my understanding of Unferth’s engagement, and her telling her mom about the engagement, is colored by this weird hyperparade, this thing she didn’t necessarily even want to be there for, this thing which so few people saw.
But what the reader discovers as the book wraps quickly to its close is that Unferth’s been using this defamiliarizing narrative trick throughout to bring the reader in, to make the reader feel the sort of traceless confusion that Unferth seems to have felt then. Actually, not even (or not only) felt then, in her 18th year, in 1987 in Nicaragua, but in the passage of time since: Revolution is, in the end, an attempt to reckon with the past and with the younger Unferth the present Unferth is. I will submit that however that may sound, written down like that as a boring sentence, the way you’ll actually feel, reading it, is too big to name, too expansive and breath-takingly great to minimize. This is a book, fundamentally, about the self, particularly past selves, and if you’re reading anything other than this this month, February of 2011, you’re making a mistake to every self you’ve ever had, the one right now and all the ones you could later become.