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NBCC Featured Review: Edward Nawotka on Dan Chaon

By Eric Banks

Each week Critical Mass features an exemplary review by an NBCC member. Below, in a review that originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, Edward Nawotka considers Dan Chaon’s new novel Await Your Reply.

A man is hurtling along a pitch-dark highway in rural Michigan with his son shaking in pain. The son’s severed hand rests on ice in a Styrofoam cooler on the seat between them. So begins Dan Chaon’s fascinating second novel, Await Your Reply, and the book never lets up from there. What follows is an unsettling, modern gothic novel about the nature of identity, one that wonders whether dozens of lesser lives can ultimately add up to one big one. It’s a book, literally and figuratively, about taking lives.

The novel shifts between three distinct storylines. There’s Lucy, an 18-year-old high school graduate who runs off with her Maserati-driving history teacher to an abandoned hotel on a dried-out lake in Nebraska. There’s Ryan, the young man with the severed hand, who is presumed dead after disappearing from Northwestern University, but is living with his previously absentee, pothead father in a cabin in the Michigan woods. Finally, there’s 31-year-old Miles Cheshire, a drifter who works in a Cleveland magic shop and has spent much of the past decade chasing his schizophrenic twin brother, Hayden, across the country. These three characters share numerous traits: estranged or dead parents, mentally ill siblings and a fierce intelligence. Each is also part of a couple that is wholly intimate—the sentence “You’re the only person in the world who still loves me” is repeated several times—but also virtual strangers.

Inevitably, the storylines intersect, but it is Miles and Hayden’s story that dominates. As Await Your Reply progresses, we learn that the twins began to diverge in high school, a time when Hayden’s illness began to manifest itself and he started shifting between reality and a series of fantasy lives, one as an abused cabin boy on a pirate ship, who repeatedly has his throat slit, and another in which the history of the United States is mixed up with a personal mythology. As a teen, and with the help of Miles, Hayden began recording this mythology in an atlas and includes such phenomena as pyramids in North Dakota and spirit towers in arctic Canada. As an adult, the mythology would expand to include a vast global conspiracy run by the big banks, powerful lawyers and other assorted Bilderbergers.

“Looking back,” Chaon writes, “it was as if there had been two different lives that Miles was leading—one narrated by Hayden, the other the life he was living separately… ” Halfway through the novel, having chased Hayden to Omaha, Neb., Houston, and even farther afield, Miles begins to question his own grip on reality. Along with Miles, the reader is forced to question what is real and what is merely fantasy, and a kind of literary game ensues.

Chaon sets the action almost entirely in the blank, wide-open Midwest, a characteristic that makes Await Your Reply all the more haunting. The characters rarely encounter other people, except in memory, and their physical isolation gives them ample opportunity to explain themselves to each other in a series of stories that are both truth and lies. It’s like a literary version of Epimenides’ famous paradox: Am I lying, or am I lying when I say that I never tell the truth? Teasing out the truth is one of the numerous pleasures of this fine novel.

Another is the plot, which is surprisingly kinetic for what is largely a psychological drama. To describe what happens is likely to give too much away, but the title does offer a hint: The phrase “await your reply” is referenced as the closing line in a common spam message, specifically the kind that offers you millions of dollars provided you’re willing to give your bank account and Social Security numbers to a grieving stranger in West Africa. That should give you an idea of where the book is, eventually, headed.

Chaon’s timing couldn’t be better: Await Your Reply arrives Tuesday, a week after the Justice Department indicted three men (two of them Russian) for the theft of more than 130 million credit card numbers in what is said to be the biggest case of computer fraud and identity theft in U.S. history. If you want to get into the heads of the perpetrators, this book is a place to start.

But saying this is a book about computer-assisted identity theft is like saying that murder can be reduced to the weapon used—each is just a tool to achieve a greater (or lesser, depending on your point of view) psychological aim.

There are echoes and allusions to H.P. Lovecraft, Patricia Highsmith, Peter Straub, Stephen King and Shirley Jackson all over Await Your Reply; however, a more apt and timely comparison is with Thomas Pynchon. I’m not talking about the Cheech and Chong-meet-Raymond Chandler variety of Pynchon seen in the recently released Inherent Vice, but the vintage paranoid Pynchon of V and The Crying of Lot 49. Chaon has produced a book that is closer to Pynchonesque than has Pynchon himself.

Of course, that kind of recommendation might just turn people off the book, so let me say that another set of books to which Chaon’s might invite comparison is Stieg Larsson’s best-sellers The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire, books that also feature an orphaned computer hacker—albeit one who is a hero and not a villain.

These titles share some of the same DNA or, if you will, computer code with Await Your Reply, though Chaon’s book is far less cartoonish, which makes it all the more chilling and convincing in its conclusions about the ultimate fragility of the self.