One of the primary reasons I enjoy reading fiction that comes out of small publishing houses is the pretense. Rather, lack thereof. The goals, the mission is clear. These writers aren’t deluded. They took their college writing workshop classes Formalism and Fiction, Function of Prose, they graduated from places like the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and they’ve studied under famous writers, instructed on how to write the Great American Novel. The thing is, they’re not buying it. They have seen writers try and fail at that lofty mission and they decided it’s not for them. Their talents lie elsewhere. Deb Olin Unferth is such a writer that eschews convention for experiment; and her novel Vacation is such an example that toys with expectation and structure.
The book jacket synopsis belies the story within. Ostensibly a novel about a woman leaving her husband, said husband looking for an old acquaintance, everything else is irregular and original. The plot twist and turns and Unferth is a master at the meta-narrative. Where other metafiction struggles to distance itself from becoming too self reflexive, too self involved, even too self-congratulatory, Unferth’s narrative never strays from its intent: a new, reinvented method of storytelling. Every sentence comes across as utterly necessary. There aren’t too many wasted words (Infinite Jest this certainly is not). Unferth also does really well to instill a sense of dread within the pages. The reader quickly realizes that things may turn out badly before they get better. But with that, she masterfully builds the peaks and valleys of hope and heartbreak, a plot that is equally devastating and strangely optimistic. I’d recommend this novel to anyone who thinks quality fiction needs a kick in the pants, or is perhaps bored with the same well worn narratives of traditional fiction.