We gave it a C
Are you tired of your job? Do you feel you’re getting nowhere? Have you ever considered a career in the well-paid field of psychoanalysis? Well, now you can. Just purchase Impossible Vacation by Spalding Gray, famous for his monologues on stage and screen (Monster in a Box, Swimming to Cambodia). The book is a couch monologue complete with a mother complex and Gray’s delusions about being a novelist. It’s guaranteed to make you mutter, ”Yes, please go on about these fantasies” in a thick Middle-European accent within minutes after you start to read: ”I couldn’t take responsibility for these feelings and I would begin to get angry and blame them on Mom…I didn’t like the sound or thought of ‘commitment’…I had slipped into a postadolescent state of unproductive fantasy….”
Gray thinly disguises his maundering narrator as ”Brewster North,” but the book has no fictional texture at all. It’s a series of childhood memories, anecdotes, dreams, sexual fantasies, and feelings gotten in touch with. A few of these are arresting and amusing. By far the best things in the book are the childhood images of summer beaches in Rhode Island, suffused with a nostalgic sense of security, and the transformation of his mother from the laughing, capricious young woman of his early childhood to the hysterical Christian Scientist who goes to pieces during his adolescence. If this were a real novel instead of an exercise in strenuous self-absorption, it might end with her suicide and render her decline and its effect on his family in some depth.
Instead we get the aimless wanderings, transient enthusiasms, and permanent adolescent confusion of the narrator — a marginal, aging actor-hippie — during the 1960s and ’70s. He does some avant-garde acting; he takes LSD and just, like, sees the stars; he goes off to Mexico and to a Zen retreat; he moves in with a faithful woman named Meg; he drinks beer, smokes pot, avoids work, and neglects Meg; he goes to India seeking erotic transports; he briefly and passively strays into gay sex in Amsterdam; he acts in a porn film; he gets totally depressed; he betrays Meg with an orgiastic affair; he goes to a nude beach in California and to jail in Las Vegas. He doesn’t have much curiosity about the places and people he encounters; they are just the backdrop for his narcissistic tumults.
The book has the couch-confession virtue of complete candor, and it’s not so much boring as exasperating. The narrator doesn’t have a clue about his problems, but you can always consult a book like Marie-Louise von Franz’s 1981 Puer Aeternus (”The Perpetual Child”), which contains a precise description of his sort — the usual shallowness, fear of commitment, and boyish charm. As long as you aren’t expecting a work of fictional art, Impossible Vacation may sporadically engage you and even change your life — if you want, that is, to try your hand at the craft of psychoanalysis.C