Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Await Your Reply

Ryan's hand has been severed. His father is driving him to the hospital, or so he says, the hand on ice between. This is the opening image of Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply and it's only one of the many chilling horrors you'll find in its pages.

The book is made up of three parallel story lines. In one, Ryan has left his adopted family and a failing college career, unintentionally faking his own death in the process, to take up residence with his biological father, a small time con man. In another, nineteen year-old Lucy, flees her small-minded Ohio town with her former high school history teacher, George Orson, who promises to make them both rich through some nefarious dealing. In the third, Miles takes a leave of absence from his job with a Cleveland-based magician's supply company to go chase down his identical twin brother Hayden in Canada. The conspiracy-obsessed Hayden, the only family Miles has left, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and escaped, years ago, from the institution which was treating him.

At first, it's difficult to see how the plots of these stories connect, or how they will converge as the novel unfolds, but certain parallels become immediately clear. All three stories are about orphans of a sort. And in all three, there is some question about identity. The cons that Ryan and his father Jay are involved in require them each to take on multiple Internet identities which they then use to open bank accounts and credit cards. Lucy finds George Orson's past increasingly murky. Hayden lives not only with frightening past lives that he glimpses in nightmares, but has created complete fantastical realities into which he drags both himself and his brother Miles. On top of this, both Ryan and Miles have a kind of genetic identity crisis to deal with. Ryan's discovery that he was adopted leaves him wondering what his life might have been like had he been raised by his biological father; Miles, who is identical to Hayden genetically, is left wondering why it is his brother and not he who lost his mind.

These protagonists are painfully lost and lonely, both psychologically and physically. They all embark on road trips through isolated landscapes: the northern frozen tundra, a hotel in an abandoned tourist town, a survivalist cabin deep in the Michigan woods. They are road trips which may lead, ultimately, to nowhere.

If it sounds depressing, well, it is. Await Your Reply is not an uplifting book. Avoid if that's what you're looking for. As the opening severed-hand image sets up, this book is instead a kind of horror novel, although there is really nothing supernatural in it. As in the best horror novels, these characters are easy to relate to and feel for. As in the best horror novels, you'll find yourself shouting at them to wake up, to see how they are being used and fooled, to recognize the danger they've put themselves in. Most frighteningly, these characters live in our world, a world in which identity is increasingly elastic, in which it becomes ever easier to make up a version of yourself or create a new persona to make your own. It has become easier to be fooled by people who, for one reason or another, have decided to misrepresent. While there is freedom in this new world ("You can be whoever you want to be," Chaon's characters declare over and over) there is also lots and lots of danger. Not only might we trust the wrong people, we might also find it difficult to remember exactly who we are.

Dan Chaon, who has a new book of short stories, Stay Awake, will be speaking and reading at my local library later this week. I'll post a little write up about that event in the comments below, if you're interested.


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5 comments:

tanita davis said...

This sounds terrifying in that sort of can't-stop-reading way that some horror novels do... yikes. I'd be interested to hear about the writer's process in this - I usually like stories with multiple storylines, but this sounds nearly impossible to weave together!

david elzey said...

sounds... fascinating. i am curious how it all ends, not so much because i'm on the fence about checking it out, but wondering how "dark" material like this fits among the general thinking in the YA community that books for teens ought to deliver some sense of "hope" at the end.

i would hope that not everyone's story in this book has such a pat, hopeful ending. it would seem an impossible/improbable conclusion to so much of what is laid out here.

Tracy said...

I really enjoyed this one. And although I never equated it with the horror genre before, I definitely see your point. David... I probably wouldn't link it with a general YA audience either. And I wouldn't describe the ending as pat or hopeful.

Here is my brief 2009 review for our library's Recommended Reading List for Adults:

Three seemingly unrelated narratives converge to create this quietly compelling story about the malleable nature of identity and the conflicting human needs for connection and isolation. Ryan, a college sophomore, walks away from his life and essentially fakes his own death after discovering he was adopted. Lucy, a small-town girl with big dreams, runs off with her charming history teacher only to find herself holed up at a deserted motel in Nebraska. And Miles, a self-effacing everyman who is haunted by the disappearance of his more charming, possibly schizophrenic twin, leaves everything once again to chase after his troubled long-lost brother. More intellectual than action-oriented, this is a psychological thriller that examines paranoia and the grey area between reality and fantasy. With his precise, evocative prose, keenly realized observations, and vividly imagined characters, Chaon expertly navigates through the separate narratives, weaving a layered puzzle of a novel that comes to a satisfying and startling conclusion.

mr chompchomp said...

No, it's definitely not YA, but I do see it as something older teens might get into. It definitely has a youthful feel.

I didn't see the ending as pat or hopeful at all. It's something of a surprise ending so I don't want to spoil anything. I had it partly figured out about three quarters of the way through, but it still managed to surprise me.

Thanks for all the comments.

mr chompchomp said...

Just heard Dan Chaon read from his new book Stay Awake. Some of the same themes as in Await Your Reply, but at least a few of the stories seemed a bit lighter, though the title story, about a baby born with a malformed twin's face fused to her, would not be one of them.

Also, it turns out Await Your Reply is going to be a film. Chaon wrote the screenplay himself.