I have reached that (for lack of a better term) cynical stage of reading where most things that pass my eyes into the "reading center" of my brain are brow-beaten with the questions "To whom is this similar?" and "What does this mean?". Now, these are fine questions and are ones that are worth exploring. We are, after all, embroiled in a historical dialogue where all things that precede us asks the questions to which we respond and everything we do has some personal meaning expressed upon it...at least, this is what sounds good in a literature discussion. The problem with the two questions is that they impart a reactionary phase to the primary act. In other words, you have to let a work breathe on its own as a whole before you start ripping it apart. Putting the cart before the horse serves only to deprive you of picking up the very voice of the novel, and with novels like Vacation, you really want to hear that voice.
To sum up the plot as briefly as possible: It is the future, or something like it, and humanity is able to take one fully paid vacation where they get to explore the world as a whole. Or well, some parts of humanity are able to take this vacation. The protaganist is Bernard Johnson, a teacher and a phildickian/palahniukian everyman who reaches that point where his life needs change because at its core it is empty.
On his vacation, time and time his preconceived notion has to be tossed aside for reality, though he never quite nails down what is ultimately going on. And, as is stated in the text of the novel, things take place in context, so we are ultimately witnessing his growing into the person he wants to be, more than watching him become involved in class warfare.
This novel is not surreal. There are "surreal" moments, but in a manner much like ones that Philip K Dick used they are the places where the viewpoint of the current speaker shifts out of focus and the reality is not easily summed up for them. It follows a dream logic in places, in other words, but this is because the experiences are internal ones, not an external one without a proper physic.
It is enjoyable. Definitely so. And it is enlightening. I would guess especially to twenty/thirty-something year old male readers since it seems to tap into the questions that young men have to face in their own self-idenfication. The main question that it keeps returning to is the value of choice. Our choice to lie or tell the truth. Our choice to stay or leave. Our choice to sacrifice ourselves or someone else. Our choice to play ignorant or to try and learn. Our choice to kill for a cause or to save due to one. Bernard Johnson's main journey isn't through any jungle/desert. His main journey is simply finding out who the hell he is when the guns start going off and his life is on the line and he might make a difference. And sure, to paraphrase Vacation itself, that is cliche but there you go. When it comes down to it, the basic struggles that we go through are very cliche because we all put up with them and we all put up with them in pretty similar ways (with some differences, of course).
And Shipp took this cliche-ridden job of presenting the basic malaise of a 30-something year old who has never fully made a choice for himself and made it something fun and deep to read. My hat off to his turn of the phrase and his presentational skills.
If I have one disdain, and all reviews have that one "step back", right?, it is something I cannot put my finger on, but I will try. I read the book in roughly two sittings. About half-way with each one (with some various distractions in the second sitting due to everyday life and its rudeness). What I noticed is, coming back to the book a few hours later and trying to read the second half; it was not hard to get back into the themes of the book, but the characters had to be somewhat relearned. I normally retain a good deal of rhythm and rhyme for characters and places in books, even with extended breaks between readings, but the characters were flat to me and had to be refleshed out. I have no idea if this was a problem on my side, or indicative of a shallow characterization on Shipp's side, but it was not a deal breaker. Despite this I felt extremely moved by the book, but I think I could have stood for characters to be a little less archetype, a little less broad stroke, and a little bit more uneven.
All-in-all, a book worth putting high in a stack. It won't take you long to read it, but it will stick with you for a bit.
Written by W Doug Bolden
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