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October 17, 2008

Book Notes - Deb Olin Unferth ("Vacation")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Last year one of the most interesting books I read was One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in a Small Box: Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, How the Water Feels to the Fishes, and Minor Robberies, a collection of short stories by three authors: Dave Eggers, Sarah Manguso, and Deb Olin Unferth. Unferth has impressed me in the past with her short fiction, but reading her Minor Robberies volume in this book gave me a new appreciation for her literary talent.

Vacation is Deb Olin Unferth's debut novel, a wonderfully unsettling book that shows how the most seemingly insignificant events can change our lives. Written in sharp, precise prose, Vacation is a postmodern gem.

The Village Voice said of the book:

"The action unfolds like a postmodern—or perhaps post-mortem—farce. Paths nearly cross, old friends nearly meet, lovers and parents and children almost reunite. Odd, sometimes absurdist correspondences between character and setting take the place of traditional plot. There are hints of posthumous fantasy, of reality filtered through delirium (Gray's experiences are colored by the brain tumor he doesn't know he has). E-mails, earthquakes, kidnapped dolphins, delayed flights, death are all given equal weight. The result is a post-realist novel, similar to Ed Park's Personal Days, Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital, or Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances."

In her own words, here is Deb Olin Unferth's Book Notes essay for her debut novel, Vacation:

“Skinhead Love Affair” Bad Manners

A friend made me a ska compilation tape many years ago because I didn’t know anything about ska and he figured that was one tragic fact about the world that he could alter. I immediately lost the list of song titles and bands, so the first thirty or forty times I head the song “Skinhead Love Affair” I thought the title was “Skinny Love Affair” and that every place the word “skinhead” appeared it was the word “skinny.” The girl was skinny and the guy was going by the name Skinny. Their love affair was skinny and he was feeling pretty skinny about it.

It’s a cheerful song, a story of failed love. The guy, Skinny, loves this skinny woman so much, he’s beside himself. He insists, “It’s a skinny love affair.” I wasn’t sure what that meant. It occurred to me that in the slang of the song, the word “skinny” referred to a style of clothing as well as to their slight weight, but I felt it was more than that. I felt he was giving an existential nod to the fleeting nature of love: their affair, like all affairs, is a skinny thing in the vast world of courage and pain, and that fact made their love all the more sad and urgent.

As the song goes on, it becomes clear by the way these two comport themselves—what they expect of each other and what they give—that their ability to express love, to be intimate, is skinny indeed, so the expression “skinny love affair” turns out to have a psychological element too. The lyricist manages, I felt, to use one word to describe the philosophical tensions of love, the psychological vulnerabilities, as well as the physical attributes of the two heroes.

Then the chorus insists, “It’s over, it’s over, it’s over!” But Skinny doesn’t seem to hear, or he hears but he can’t quite believe it, or he believes it but he can’t change what he does. He has to act in accordance with his skinny love. He thinks about her all the time, even when he’s in lock up, and the first chance he gets, he drops to his knee and proposes. The skinny girl winds up shouting at him, “Skinny! Can’t you see? It’s over, it’s over, it’s over!” Then the music plays on, perversely merry, and still, despite her disdain, he can’t help himself, he’s skinny in love. And this is the best part. Skinny starts repeating, “I’m skinny in love, just skinny in love...” First he says it calmly and factually and descriptively, but then his pitch rises and he sounds more pained and confused—he can’t help what he is, he’d like to be different, but he just has to be skinny about this, there’s no other way for him. He keeps repeating it and it begins to sound like a mantra, it begins to sound almost transcendent. There is something beautiful and sad about having to be this way. He’s human and real. He will claim this skinniness, he will assert it. In the last line, his voice drops and steadies. It’s a closing statement, a summing up. This is a man who is and always will be skinny in love.

When I found out the title was “Skinhead Love Affair,” I was completely annoyed and disappointed. I refused to call it by its real name. I continued to say the word “skinny” in my mind when I listened to the song (and I listened to it a lot) and since I knew what the word was supposed to be, a layer of darkness and wrong-doing and disillusionment entered my experience of the song. I wished I’d written the song. Too bad these Bad Manners people thought of it first and then messed it up. I’d like to write something like that, I thought.

Years passed. I wrote one book that didn’t get published and then another that didn’t get published. I languished. I lost the compilation tape and anyway I didn’t have a tape player anymore, then I didn’t have a CD player anymore, except in my computer. I forgot about the song. I kept writing. I wrote Vacation.

It turns out the sad plot and the word-play style of the song have so much in common with my ill-fated love story Vacation that it’s almost embarrassing. But in my story, Skinny isn’t the only one who’s alone and in pain. The skinny girl is also alone and in pain, and around them is a cast of lonely people, all of them making thin efforts at intimacy and all of them failing.

Here are a few more songs for the novel Vacation.

“No Children” Mountain Goats
Best break-up song ever.

“Razzle Dazzle Rose” Camera Obscura
Cheery title, grim song.

“Cuckoo” Magnetic Fields"
A love song on my level.

“Don’t Let It Get You Down” Spoon
Song I went running to while writing the book.

“It Is Time for Stormy Weather” The Pixies
For the end of the book.

Deb Olin Unferth and Vacation links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's page at the publisher
the book's video trailer

Bookforum review
Corduroy Books review
Esquire review
NewPages review
Philadelphia City Paper review
Publishers Weekly review
Time Out New York review
Village Voice review

Bookslut interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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