The concept of the vacation is inextricably linked to the concept of work; on a purely semantic level, the word “vacation”—like vacancy—indicates the deliberate absence of something else. Here, as everywhere, language implies reality. Work is the default setting, vacation a temporary respite. 

Work—the pursuit of capital, the relentless grind of self-optimization—surrounds us, consumes us, lives and breeds inside us. In the age of in-office wellness cures (kombucha, Pilates, ping pong, on-site therapy: pick your poison) and high-tech soundproof pods in which you can sleep on the job (now you literally never have to leave!), it’s no surprise that vacation itself has become a business. 

This phenomenon finds its most potent, psychotic distillate in the cruise industry. Cruise ships take the guesswork out of relaxation. For an agreed-upon fee, you’re shipped off on a packaged, curated experience with the express purpose of enjoying yourself. You have options—a few port calls, a few choices on the menu, maybe even a few restaurants if you’re on a big enough boat—but not too many. Too many options introduce an unpleasant degree of uncertainty, and who wants to deal with that on vacation? Who wants to deal with that at all? 

Hugo, the protagonist of Garth Miró’s The Vacation (May 2022, Expat Press), is just like us but a little worse: not because he’s a social climber, or an addict separated from his stash, or a total misanthrope, but because he’s “already hollow down there. Decided.” By his own admission, he’s “mechanically-separated sandwich ham and low-rent apartments and pressed oxy crumbs and nothing.” 

He’s a hollow man of the most neoliberal order. He doesn’t enjoy his vacation, which materializes as a petty ploy to torture his old-world wife CC by trapping her on the floating quintessence of middle-class America, and ends with the collapse of a cult; instead, he moves through it like the reader of a choose-your-own-adventure novel, narrating it in flares of pain. He has emotions, drives—disgust, rage, spite—but his wants are blurred, amorphous. His actions are responses to stimuli, not the products of genuine desires. 

Miró’s prose, which isn’t dense so much as restless and relentless, sprouts organically from his narrator’s environment. Late-stage capitalism is predicated upon control and commodification: risk management, the destruction of nuance, the flattening-out of emotion and aspect. 

When the mechanisms of internal, roughly independent desire are weakened or stamped out entirely—when all desire becomes a reaction to external motors—desire, that most unpredictable animal quality, is transformed into something useful, governable. You can account for it on a balance sheet.

***

Hugo’s internal monologue is frenzied, schizoid, desperately trying to keep up with a version of reality that’s reshaping his mind in its own image. Things happen to him without cessation; he’s perpetually raw, sensorially overwhelmed. His freneticism finds its mirror in Miró’s storytelling: when he finally meets the mysterious Cruise Director who runs the ship, launching the noirish cult plotline, the rest of the novel unwinds at breakneck pace.

Hugo’s a pathetic, tragic figure with delusions of Machiavellianism; on his own, he lacks the ability to be effectively Machiavellian. He’s stuck in middle management. He’s angling to throw the ecosystem around him—the microcosm of his marriage, CC’s family business, the Cruise Director’s cult of relaxation—into chaos, but he’s too emasculated to do much more than flail around trying to cause damage. 

Hugo’s in pain. He needs it; he’s nothing without it. As he remarks to himself, “Pain is your buddy. Your Keith Richards. Your Sancho.” 

He’s tasted comfort—married up, escaped the humble conditions of his upbringing, his “dirty apartment” and “skinny desperate parents”—but he’s still only comfortable with “good honest hate. It’d built more countries and birthed more inventions and got more jobs done than anything else on the planet. It was the lovers, the utopians who created the hells.”

His amorphous hate makes him ideal fodder for the engines of capital and cultism. He shoots off his mouth, but Hugo’s the perfect worker, even on vacation. His training (compliant employee, husband, writer) runs so deep that in the process of trying to fight the power—or become it—he’s subsumed into the machine.

***

If capital is the god that presides over modern life, the word yes is its dedicatory altar. When you’re working for someone else, yes becomes your default response. Yes, I’m available. Yes, this is a good time. No worries, of course I can. 

Although the Cruise Director’s inner sanctum is grotesque, perverse, despotic, Hugo’s most visceral encounters with violence are the result of ruptures in his curated vacation-sphere. Roughly midway through the novel, he ventures out on a lizard-hunting expedition that winds up being a botched kidnapping attempt. When he returns to the boat, he’s traumatized, covered in mud and blood and human viscera. The Cruise Director materializes with an offer of safety: “Come over here and get yourself clean.” 

Hugo’s recruited to write speeches for his new higher-ups. He isn’t just sucked into the language of work, he literally embodies it. 

Hugo’s second big brush with death comes when, after he’s gained access to the Cruise Director’s “richoid heaven” pleasure dome, Somali pirates attack the cruise ship. As they blow the boat to pieces, Hugo looks out at the ocean beyond “this searing boiling world” and—for the first time in the novel—actively yearns for peace and quiet. 

The pirates come out of nowhere. They’re pirates ex machina, the boiling point of a fever dream. This lends them a certain wish-fulfillment quality; their arrival represents the violence, the catharsis, the total social collapse Hugo’s been waiting for this whole time. 

But after gazing into the abyss, he steps back from the edge, lured by the literal and figurative sedatives of contemporary life:

My morphine. The lesser doc would be administering. For all my hard work. I was ready to get it over with. Go back to normal life. The working world. To settle in. At a desk. Here it came. A little relief after all this stuff. I just needed a little something to help me relax. 

There’s a way in which our world—the world of the cruise, our stifling postmodern world of formulaic hierarchies and regulations and low-grade entertainment—is good because it’s safe. 

Hugo sees both sides. Like most of us, he chooses safety, blankness, yes.

The ultimate reward for his compliance is vacancy—the absence not of work but of risk, fear, feeling—a true vision of eternal vacation.

***

Matilda Lin Berke

Matilda Lin Berke is a writer based in NY by way of LA, a recent graduate of Wellesley College, and the Editorial Manager of the Adroit Journal. Her writing has previously appeared in Forever Magazine, The Magazine Antiques, Hobart, Adroit, and The Mars Review of Books, and is forthcoming in dream boy book club, Compact, and Expat Press. She’s received a Pushcart nomination and her poetry has been selected for inclusion in Plain China: National Anthology of the Best Undergraduate Writing. You can find her on Instagram @matilda.berke and on Twitter @unmeritedsteak.

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