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VACATION
By JEREMY C. SHIPP (Raw Dog Screaming Press; 2007)

Fans of the late Philip K. Dick will appreciate this hallucinatory first novel, as will all those unafraid of challenging, thoughtful writing.  In the manner of Dick masterworks like THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRICH and UBIK, this is a profoundly trippy book, but also a highly literate and intelligent one that demands close reading.  I realize Iíve probably turned off a large portion of my readership with that last sentence, but for the more steadfast among you VACATION comes highly recommended. 

      On the surface the story this deceptively short novel tells is simple: in a heavily regulated future America, Bernard Johnson, an educator fed up with his humdrum existence, embarks on a government-sponsored vacation around the world.  He only makes it as far as India, though, before heís kidnapped by a band of terrorists in service of an outfit called the Garden, who induct Bernard into their crusade against the Tics (Those in charge).

      The above may be a more-or-less adequate summation of VACATIONíS narrative, but woefully fails to convey the bookís mind-rattling complexity.  Itís told in the form of a long letter by Bernard to his parents, filling them in on why he never returned from his vacation.  From the start itís clear this guy is a not-entirely-reliable narrator in the way he glosses over the details of the vacation (he renders his outdoor exploits in New Zealand in the form of a straight list) yet devotes a fair amount of verbiage to imaginary convos with his twin sister Aubrey, who died before Bernard was born. 

      Thus from the start a reality-hallucination dichotomy is established that grows increasingly pronounced.  Aubreyís specter is a constant presence in Bernardís adventures, as is Blackbeard, a pirate, and Krow, a former student of Bernardís whoís undergone a sex change and is now a high-ranking Garden operative.   

      Highlights include a nightmarish walk through a spectral forest of horrors, a ďdeadĒ character who proves otherwise, and an involved subplot thatís later revealed to have been completely imaginary.  The latter fact may be a signifier of the storyís true nature, but donít expect any shocking last minute twists; this is a labyrinthine entertainment through which every reader will have to make his or her own way.  But one thing is certain: as a sophisticated exercise in reality displacement, VACATION is about as solid as they come.
 


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