Maybe things aren't so peachy keen. It's possible, indeed seeming ever
more likely as each day passes, that the world is run by madmen who
would sooner drink your blood than hand you a cup of water. Perhaps
we ought to be very angry about this. Fighting mad.
But change, as the rich man is inclined to tell the poor man looking
for a handout, comes from within. How do we affect the sort of changes
within that will result in changes without?
You might wish to spike the drinking water with some sort of hallucinogenic
substance, to give everyone you can a really bad acid trip, so that they
too, can have that "naked lunch" effect that gave William Burroughs
the title of his famous novel. If we all saw just how bad things were,
perhaps we might be motivated to do something about it. Of course, spiking
the drinking supply is a really bad idea.
But don’t drink the water, OK?
Instead, pick up 'Vacation', Jeremy C. Shipp's terse, effective rant
covering just about everything that's wrong with the world in a short
158 pages. Shipp's novel is the literary equivalent of a really bad acid
trip. It traps you within the confines of a reality that you'd like to
escape but cannot. It makes you reflect on the nature of reality as you
experience it in the novel, but also as you experience it every day.
It knocks you upside the head and kicks you when you’re down. Oh
the joys of reading.
As 'Vacation' begins, Bernard Johnson addresses a letter to his parents,
a very angry letter. He's a moderately successful teacher who is finally
going to go on Vacation. This isn’t the sort of lower-case vacation
any of us have experienced. Bernie's world starts out seeming like ours,
but proves to be much stranger. The Vacation he's sent upon is a reward
that good citizens get, a year off from work to see the beauties of the
world. It doesn't work out that way. Instead, Shipp, via Bernie, takes
us on a tour of every hellhole human inferno we've managed to cook up
for one another of late. Bernie is kidnapped by terrorists, unless he's
fallen into a fever-dream inducing coma. But his tale is going to make
you think. In general, these will be thoughts you’d prefer to avoid
thinking, but this is a bad acid trip and you have no choice. The pages
fly by. This 'Vacation' can't last, and you may not want it to. On the
other hand, you can't live without it.
Shipp does quite a bit very right in this slim, quickly-read novel. He's
helped by Raw Dog's generous printing, which makes reading a pleasure.
This is a critical point, particularly with this novel, because Shipp
spends most of the novel rubbing your nose in the worst aspects of our
world today. From the first person perspective of Bernie, we see torture
for state, the exploitation of the poor by the rich, our human penchant
for interpersonal violence. Shipp's voice is pure anger distilled to
the page and set in service of a very surreal plot that has Bernie running
around an island (unless he's just dreaming parts of this) switching
sides from terrorist to saviors to pirates to ... the Agency. The world
is breaking down around us, and Bernard Johnson is on Vacation, working
out his personal issues.
The question of just what is happening in 'Vacation' is quite fascinating.
Are we looking at a hallucination or a near-future dystopia? Since he's
writing in the first person, Shipp spends a fair amount of time directly
addressing the reader. The minimalist style, surreal feel and the embedded
anger will delight fans of writers such as Chuck Palahniuk.
Shipp's prose is stripped down to pure muscle and anger. But there's
a polished literary tone at work here as well, with lots of heavy-duty
references to highfalutin' litrachur. It's like finding T. S. Eliot's
early punk-rock record. 'Vacation' is remarkably polemic and didactic,
but Shipp's conviction is convincing. He directly addresses the myriad
forms of injustice in a plot that is part nightmare, part science fiction,
part literary essay. The pleasures of a bad acid trip may escape some
readers, but those who want the illusions of this world flayed and revealed
in all their awful glory will find 'Vacation' a powerful novel. The real
kicker is that even those who don't want to engage in having their illusions
forcibly removed may find this bad trip well worth taking.