I wish Deb Olin Unferth were my best friend.
Had I not postponed dinner until after her reading the other night, then ordered a whiskey and found myself slurring my words by the time she was finished, I would have embarked on a campaign then to convince her, somehow, that I was worthy.
Because Victoria Redel read her story “Deb Olin Unferth” (“No one in Wyoming thinks that Deb Olin Unferth is a fuckup…”) aloud to us in class, I always pictured Ms. Unferth looking like Victoria: beautiful, confident, stylish, professor-age. Seeing her read from her new novel, Vacation, at the St. Mark’s series this week, I was surprised to find that, although she is a professor, she is a close-to-my-age professor and although she’s stylish, she’s black smock sweater and cute black haircut stylish. Often, a revelation like this would send me spiraling into a fit of inadequacy and jealousy, but luckily this time I was able to halt my unraveling well before that point, stopping at envy and admiration.
Ms. Unferth delivered her clipped prose as if she were reading a poem, emphasizing the repetition and the comedy in her sentence construction. She read quickly, endearingly nervously, and introduced the audience neither to her characters nor to the action of the novel, even though she picked a section well into the novel to share. It worked anyway.
Why? The joy (and the tragedy) of Vacation is in the sentences. It is in the paragraphs. Reading the novel, it is not at all as if the characters and plot (which will sound convoluted and absurd if I try to recap it here—it defies summary in the best way—if you want to know what it’s about, the only way to find out is to read it) are beside the point, but that both of those elements exist within each sentence. One could pick the book up, flip to any page, read any paragraph and take something away from it. In fact, my writing buddy flipped to the last page of my copy while she was working on the last page of her novel, just to compare endings, read it, and said, “Huh. I like that.” The sum is greater than the parts, but the novel is so nonlinear—it leaps around from character to character, third person to first, country to country, present to future, post-modern narrator interjections to internal monologues to emails, from perplexed husbands with dented heads to dolphin untrainers to random bystanders—that the parts are pretty satisfying in their own right.
Ms. Unferth lists like no other. A chapter after she starts to describe the dissolution of a marriage, all the fights the couple had, especially about the wife leaving too many lights on in the apartment, she writes this:
To be accurate, they had not fought about most things. They had not fought about the shape of certain objects, never disagreed about whether an object was round or tall. They had not fought about the outlines of things, how it worked so that one thing could be separated from another, what occurred to mark the division atomically…They even agreed on some aspects regarding lights—the way they work, the hardware, their function, etc.
She also uses the structure she sets up to her best advantage. I mentioned that the novel is broken up into sections, skirts around between many different characters, some of them appearing to have their own voice for only a couple of paragraphs, some carrying the central dramas of the story. Near the end of the novel, she gives us this passage:
There may have been things wrong with him from the start, things she’d disliked all along: his unrealized potential, what he hadn’t done, what she thought he should have done, his crushing quiet failures, his miniscule moves up the pay scale. Face it, he had been ill-bred, then misled by parents, stifled by teachers who had been shuttled in to represent civilization. Then they waved him out into the disorder alone. Who could want a man like that?
There were also the unmentionables, such as his weakness, the stepsister pains of his soul, the sufferings having to do with ego and desire. Not explicable or reasonable, not growing out of the commonplace, but out of the unkempt weeds of the mind.
He saw himself clearly. He had never been happy, not really…
I read these first two paragraphs as though they were in the wife’s voice. Then, Ms. Unferth twists it with that sentence: “He saw himself clearly.” The list of deficiencies was coming from the deficient one. The ambiguity adds rather than detracts from the sentiment. These kinds of narrative devices elevate the book and make a potentially difficult structure worthwhile.
The last point I will make about Vacation has to do with the recurring elements Ms. Unferth weaves throughout the book. She allows herself to be obvious; she doesn’t hide her hand in the construction and contrivance of the novel. And yet, there are surprises. Coming to the end of the story and finding out what happens, I definitely could have seen it coming. But, I didn’t, not until just before it does. The surprises of language, of sentences, of lists, of paragraphs, keeps the reader from pausing and trying to anticipate what might happen.
Next time I see Ms. Unferth, I’ll try to stay coherent long enough, if not to convince her to be my best friend, to congratulate her on her original, absorbing novel.