Field Notes: Vacation, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men


SYNOPSIS: Deb Olin Unferth’s 2008 debut novel, about two old college acquaintances, one broken-down marriage, and one roundabout search for a dolphin “untrainer.”

CONDITION: Grove paperback, new from Powell’s.

THOUGHTS: Heard great things since it first came out, but nobody ever mentioned it was a mystery. People in pursuit of other people. Faces and behaviour analyzed from afar. The cover blurb talking about the “American landscape” also curious; Vacation does technically begin in the U.S., but its heart is decidedly abroad.

Story is mind-bending and winningly opaque. Several wild goose chases happen at the same time—even at times glancing off of one another. It’s about head traumas we don’t even know we’ve suffered. Muscle memory. Corrosive, swallowed secrets. Myers thinks his old college classmate, Gray, is having an affair with his wife. Nobody says what they mean, and eventually they all wind up in Central America, each alone, each questing, and each working harder to piece things together than they really ought to.

Appealing, and its disparate parts are nicely stacked, but don’t think I ever quite got on its wavelength. Detached language of spies and intrigue a nice twist on marital strife. The biggest compliment I can think of is fearless—and with a real follow-through. This feels rare. Easy to see why it could be someone’s favourite book. It just, for whatever reason, wasn’t mine.

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SYNOPSIS: David Foster Wallace’s 1999 story collection, threaded by a recurring series of Q&As with various over-intelligent, under-emotional males.

CONDITION: Back Bay paperback, bought remaindered from Powell’s.

THOUGHTS: Is it weird that I burned through this in no time at all? Compared to 2004’s Oblivion, these stories are pretty easy to follow, anxious and talkative and overshare-y as they may be. ”Forever Overhead” gave me chills. “Octet” falls apart in a really wonderful way—one that, as Zadie Smith notes in Changing My Mind, is a good litmus test for a reader’s tolerance of Wallace’s fiction overall.

Thinking makes us human. It also wrecks us, pins us to the floor, paralyzed with options. Wallace’s characters are usually too smart for their own good. The titular “hideous” men? Their main flaw is the same as that of the kid in “Overhead”, or the husband in, yes, “Think”: they cannot act without putting themselves through mental torture. It’s a byproduct of education. Only the hillbilly in the first “The Devil is a Busy Man” gets through the day untroubled by his actions. Hideousness stems from unlikely places.

In the interviews, we see only answers; in the aborted pop-quiz format of “Octet,” only questions. As ever, Wallace wants to show us how rarely those two things, despite appearances, add up to genuine knowledge.

Sometimes wish Wallace would commit, even occasionally, to action-based endings. He almost always cuts off just before the real climax. The only way he’ll make an exception, like in part two of “Adult World”, is through an overly elaborate meta device. I’d have preferred just the story itself.

Or maybe it’s all for a reason. To commit to one course of action is to render all other possibilities—all other answers, if stories can be considered questions—moot. For someone like Wallace, who spent much of his life trying to keep his own hideousness in check, that just wouldn’t do at all.

  1. distantheartbeats said: I think what I loved most about Vacation is the language. I’m glad to see you didn’t hate it, at least!
  2. booksinthekitchen posted this