It's hard to say what you should expect of this book, because no matter what you go in thinking, Vacation will defy you.
I first discovered the work of Jeremy C. Shipp when I chanced upon his short story Camp via the mystery that is Twitter. Upon reading this story, I was immediately aware that here was a talent unlike any I had read before. Shipp has a unique and profoundly disturbing voice, one that at once repels the reader and forces them to keep reading, no matter what. Reading Shipp is a bit like watching torture: You know it's awful but you just can't seem to turn away, even though it's you that's being tortured.
This is just the sort of layering that Shipp brings to his work, and he does so with a tight sparsity of language, his prose almost poetic but at once too delicate and too brutal. I immediately sought out more of his work, and gobbled it up hungrily.
Of all his short stories and flash fiction, my favourite remains the creeping and murderous Dog, a coming-of-age tale that is as bloody as it is haunting.
So when I saw the opportunity to read and review Shipp's novels, I jumped at it. I finished reading Vacation a couple of weeks ago, but it has stayed with me long since. Wrapped up in a story that traces the main character's awakening to the harsh realities of the world he lives in, Shipp threads philosophy and sociology together with a scathing deconstruction of modern consumerism and the Western world's self-inflicted blindness to the suffering of the rest of the planet at our expense.
At turns surreal and frighteningly real, Vacation challenges the reader to deny that they are in fact living through the same drug-addled haze that Bernard Johnson has been until the time he goes on his own Vacation. Utopia disintegrates into dystopia, and Johnson is thrust into a dark world where life is worthless, minds become the puppets of guerrilla warlords, and the grand illusion of the world he knew is ground to dust.
Vacation is a provocative stream-of-conscious monologue. Shipp stretches the boundaries of the form with care and precision, twisting the point-of-view to his own purposes, more often deluding and deceiving the reader than elucidating, and in this way, draws his style together to complement both the themes and the plot. Vacation is a story that tells of one man emerging from the haze of his past into the bright and painful harshness of the truth. Chapter by chapter, Vacation becomes clearer, crueler, and ultimately draws the reader down into the inescapable fact of the sheer falseness of our existence.
It's hard to describe Vacation in any of the usual ways, as it is not satisfying or compelling in the traditional sense, yet it demands to be read, and it demands that you put it down understanding yourself perhaps better than you did when you picked it up.
And remember, this is a fictional novel, not a self-help motivational piece. Shipp has succeeded where so much fiction fails; he has fleshed layer upon layer of meaning into a fantasy to the point that it is more real than our own realities, yet he does so through a lens that is both distorted and blinding.
I think I enjoyed this book, although enjoyed may not be the best word. I know that I am glad I read it, although glad may not be the best word either. I seriously recommend it, and that is the best way I can put it.
Take it away with you on Vacation, and you may not come back the same - if you come back at all.