Jeremy C. Shipp
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2007
Raw Dog Screaming Press
US First Edition Hardcover
159 Pages; $13.95
Publication Date: 03-28-2007
Date Reviewed: 06-06-2007
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.