Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Await Your Reply
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.