Friday, June 3, 2011

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

Okay, so here's my second National Book Award finalist in a row (after reading In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin) and I'm beginning to sense a theme.  Apparently, here's what you need to make the list:

  • short, interconnected stories or multiple intertwining narratives
  • disenfranchised characters
  • a pervading sense of hopelessness
Check, check and check. I don't mean to sound flip.  Await Your Reply is an elegant novel.  Completing it felt like solving a math problem where everything ended up in the correct column and you stand back and admire both its complexity and its tidiness.  It's just. . .I miss reading about characters whom I love.

Let me back up by saying that this novel is, in the most literal sense, a novel about identity theft. There are three threads that tie together. In one of them a college-aged son and his newly discovered father (he was raised by his aunt) have created an elaborate scam with multiple identities, complete with driver's licenses and social security cards to defraud big banks.  In another thread, there is a girl who is orphaned in her senior year of high school and ends up running away with her high school history teacher who is going to get them rich if she'll only trust him.  And finally, there is the story of a guy whose who has been trying to find his identical twin brother who disappeared ten years ago from a mental institution.  The missing twin has proven impossible to find, since he takes on a new identity and moves from town to town.
Photo Credit

Each of the main characters in this book were experiencing such an aching feeling of loss that they became their emptiness.  I began to think of them by who they were missing rather than who they were.  I love how Chaon looks at identity and what it really is.  Is it your soul? If so, what's that? Is it all the millions of bytes of personal information that go fluttering away through the internet like some sort of detritus? Is it how people think of you?  If everyone you loved was lost to you and you no longer lived in anyone's memory, would you still be you? (In that sense, it reminded me of Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead where once people died, they'd move on to another world very like our own, complete with parks and apartment buildings, etc.  As soon as everyone who remembered them died, they would disappear.)

Again. . .this is an amazingly well-executed book that makes you ask questions you normally wouldn't. I can see why it was a National Book Award finalist and I truly believe it accomplished everything it set out to do. I just am sick of reading things that leave me feeling so sad and isolated when I finish them.  First, Lord of Misrule (which won the National Book Award), then In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, now this.  I feel like I need to give the NBA a rest.

<I checked this book out of my library.>


    1. I can understand your need to read something that makes you feel less weighed down...One of my goals this year was to read more books that won literary prizes; after reading your post, I will investigate the NBA winners more carefully before delving in :)

    2. That's a great goal to have! If you're going for the NBAs, though, definitely give yourself some time off in between. I ended up reading a sappy romance this weekend just to give my brain a break.