By Ron Charles
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
AWAIT YOUR REPLY
By Dan Chaon
Ballantine. 320 pp. $25
Don't read anything (except this) about Dan Chaon's mesmerizing new novel, "Await Your Reply." You need to step into this work of psychological suspense completely unprepared for what lurks in here. If somebody starts telling you what they liked best, put your fingers in your ears and sing: "La, la, la, la!" But you can trust me -- which is just what all the manipulative creeps in this novel say.
Here's what can be safely revealed about "Await Your Reply": It contains three separate stories about people driving away from their homes, abandoning their lives and remaking themselves -- what's called "the ruin lifestyle." Chaon narrates each of these stories in the same intimate, intense voice. In one, a depressed young man named Ryan drops out of college to live in the Michigan woods with his long-absent father, a master of international credit card fraud. In another, Lucy, an orphaned high school girl, runs away with her history teacher, who promises her a life of wealth and travel. And in the third, a distraught man named Miles closes in on his elusive twin near the Arctic Circle after years of cruel taunts and last-minute disappearances. They're all disastrously naive about what's waiting for them.
Any one of these arresting plots could have sustained the entire book, but Chaon rotates through them chapter by chapter. Not only that, but the chronology of each story is jumbled so that the novel isn't so much cubed as Rubik's Cubed. I know that sounds like a literary headache, but these are engrossing, nerve-racking storylines that continually hand off to one another without breaking stride, leaving us as fascinated as we are disoriented. There are Russian gangsters and hypnotists and an old magic shop that teeters on surrealism. Violence -- gory, sexual, painful abuse -- runs just beneath the surface, but Chaon usually maintains a coy deniability, never saying anything particularly threatening while making sure we suspect these characters are in deadly peril. Other times, he takes the gloves off -- and more. You will never forget the scene involving a severed hand.
Chaon's celebrated first novel, "You Remind Me of Me," also involved flashes of grisly violence and an intense connection between long-separated twins. But as much as I enjoyed that debut, I found its scrambled, intentionally oblique opening chapters frustrating. Here, Chaon's sleight of hand is subtler, even though he's engaged in an even more radical scrambling of events. The result is a novel that succeeds as brilliantly as the short stories that have won him a National Book Award nomination, a Pushcart Prize, an O. Henry Award and an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Part of what gives "Await Your Reply" its eerie edge is the way allusions to classic tales of horror and suspense prowl through these pages. The abandoned Victorian hotel where Lucy and her high school teacher hide out kept reminding me of the Bates Motel of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," and Miles's trek toward the Arctic Circle to find his unstable twin contains uncanny echoes of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." Of course, Stephen King haunts the backwoods where Ryan is holed up with his computer-genius dad, and if you're one of the eight people who've ever read Melville's "The Confidence-Man," you'll spot that shadowy shape-shifter slipping between these chapters, too.
Chaon has been tending in this direction for several years, crossbreeding elements of horror and suspense with his heartbreaking stories of lost souls and fractured families. Adopted as an infant, he's returned again and again, as he does in this novel, to a lingering sense of abandonment and alienation, the desperate search for connection in a world where personal identity seems unstable and ephemeral. Indeed, that's the theme that seems to draw him back to tales of terror, as he explored in an afterword to a Signet edition of "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" and his short story in Peter Straub's "Poe's Children," an anthology of the best new horror writing.
All the characters in "Await Your Reply" are tantalized by the prospect of casting off their old selves and taking on new personae. But they're also terrified by how easily they can be reinvented, usurped or even dissipated. "Who would you be if you weren't Lucy?" she asks herself before she falls into "a state of grim panic." "What life will you choose for yourselves?" Miles's father asks his identical sons, who will someday make a series of very bad choices.
Chaon zeroes in on the strange irony that an age so obsessed with individuality should also give rise to such fluid and ephemeral identities. We're all a matrix of screen names, avatars, credit card numbers, passwords, browser histories and cookies -- an ever-evolving collection of data. But the same technology that allows us to express ourselves to anyone on the planet has also made it impossible to tell who anyone really is. If you haven't already placed it, the novel's familiar-sounding title comes from that ubiquitous e-mail scam in which some alleged relative of an African businessman asks you to take temporary possession of $20 million. "There is something almost adorable about its awkwardness," Chaon notes; these imploring strangers with their halting English "await your reply." But who are they? And for that matter, who are we?
Chaon spins out the high-tech mechanics of such computer fraud even while exploring its metaphysical implications. "The invaders are busily carrying away small pieces of you," he writes, "tidbits of information you hardly think about, any more than you think about the flakes of skin that are drifting off of you constantly. . . . And meanwhile in another state perhaps a new version of you has already begun to be assembled, someone is using your name and your numbers, a piece of yourself dispersed and dispersing."
Despite the ultramodern, Internet-driven elements of its plot, "Await Your Reply" is rooted in the oldest American concerns. "What kind of person," Miles wonders in desperation, "decides that they can throw everything away and -- reinvent themselves?" We know the answer to that question; our ancestors are the answer to that question. But other mysteries lurk in this hypnotic novel that you'll never guess.
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