Thursday, February 18, 2010

Await Your Reply

Part thriller, part cultural commentary, total literary breakthrough, Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply is a book you’ll have a difficult time putting down, even after you’re done reading. In fact, you might read it all again before it even finds its way to the bookshelf. I did. The plot weaves together three storylines. In one, a recent high school graduate and her former history teacher turned boyfriend flee their small-town Ohio life to run away together. You get the idea that they’re on the lam, but from what or from whom? It’s a question only one of them can answer, but it’s also a question the other is hesitant and ill-equipped to ask, perhaps until it’s too late. A second story follows one brother, Miles Cheshire, as he continues his desperate and futile chase of the other, Hayden, a man as troubled as he is troubling, which has little to do with Hayden's perceived schizophrenia and more to do with his unswerving penchant for swindling the wrong people. The brothers might be identical twins, but they are as different as two people can be, and in more ways than one. Finally, a third narrative follows a father-son team of computer-age crooks in rural Michigan as their past identities and present schemes catch up to them, with startling consequences. Their story is more complicated than that, of course, as is the rest of the book and how the narratives relate: Ryan, the son, has purposefully vanished from the only life he's known to be with his father, Jay, a man he was raised to think was his uncle.

In his blurb on the back of the book, novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen writes, “I’ve been waiting for somebody to write the essential identity-theft novel, and I’m very glad Dan Chaon’s the one to have done it.” Thematically, Chaon meditates on the liquidity of modern identity, in terms of how the essence of who we are, at least according to the world around us, is nothing but data entry and busywork. We are expendable and interchangeable, which is both a good and a bad thing. But Chaon also expresses how this literal truth has become a psychological condition as well, a lens through which we not only view ourselves, but the entire society around us. And Await Your Reply succeeds because of Chaon’s masterful touch. Split into chapters that are split into sections, Chaon constantly dislocates the reader, thereby building suspense. But he also does things less noticeable. Time itself is conflated, and often unaddressed, so that, as a reader, you’re uncertain as to whether what you’re reading is sequential or not when compared to the chapters directly before and after. Metaphorically, that’s a good statement for what it’s like to live in the era that we do, filled as it is with endless white noise and imperceptible digital traffic. As the novel poses its essential question (Just what is the link between these three stories?), the relationships of the characters to each other, and themselves, constantly changes. Thus, as Chaon answers each question, three or four more pop up, each one of greater consequence than the last. Suffice it to say that Chaon answers every single one by the time it’s all said and done. More than a warning against the burgeoning threats of our era, Chaon’s novel poses an age-old existential question: Is it even possible to change who we are? Is anybody truly a dynamic character? Perhaps that's just an invention of novelists. Or, as one of the characters rhetorically reflects near the novel's climax, “What did you call an absence that ceased to become an absence, what do you call a hole that has been filled in?”

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