Book Review: Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

Await Your ReplyAwait Your Reply, by Dan Chaon 
Ballentine Books 
2009 
324 pages 

Narrated by Kirby Hayborne
10 hours, 31 minutes 
2009

Finalist, National Book Award

Dan Chaon is one of those authors who I’ve been meaning to read. In general, I’ve heard very good things about his writing and I own several of his books, yet I hadn’t read his work at all – until I picked up the audio of Await Your Reply at the library.

And holy hell … this guy is good.

Really good. Dan Chaon is probably one of the most talented authors you’ve never heard of.

That being said, if you were a victim of the Target credit card breach, you might want to pick a different Dan Chaon book. Await Your Reply includes several shady credit card con artists and computer hackers caught up in a very complicated, interconnected-with-other-characters-in-the-book scheme. It sounds like a techno-mystery-thriller; it has that aspect, but the human element, the emotion behind this is so deep.

From the Amazon.com book description:

Longing to get on with his life, Miles Cheshire nevertheless can’t stop searching for his troubled twin brother, Hayden, who has been missing for ten years. Hayden has covered his tracks skillfully, moving stealthily from place to place, managing along the way to hold down various jobs and seem, to the people he meets, entirely normal. But some version of the truth is always concealed.

A few days after graduating from high school, Lucy Lattimore sneaks away from the small town of Pompey, Ohio, with her charismatic former history teacher. They arrive in Nebraska, in the middle of nowhere, at a long-deserted motel next to a dried-up reservoir, to figure out the next move on their path to a new life. But soon Lucy begins to feel quietly uneasy.

My whole life is a lie, thinks Ryan Schuyler, who has recently learned some shocking news. In response, he walks off the Northwestern University campus, hops on a bus, and breaks loose from his existence, which suddenly seems abstract and tenuous. Presumed dead, Ryan decides to remake himself–through unconventional and precarious means.

All of these characters are connected, and Dan Chaon does a masterful job of keeping his reader guessing until the very end as to exactly how their stories fit together. (I thought I had it figured out … not so much.)

This is one of those reviews that is best told in the multiple quotes that I loved from the book. Everything means something more than what it seems.

“Growing up, he and Hayden had friends who were both appreciably poorer and appreciably richer than they, and their father told them that they should pay attention to the homes and families of their peers. ‘Learn what it is like in another life,’ he said. ‘Think hard about it, boys. People choose their lives; that’s what I want you to remember. And what life will you choose for yourselves?'” (pg. 79)

(I read this during the time of the Target credit card breach – not knowing, of course, that this was going on. That makes the following passage even more chilling.)

“An invader arrives in your computer and begins to glean the little diatoms of your identity.

Your name, your address, and so on: the various websites you visit as you wander the Internet, your user names and passwords, your birth date, your mother’s maiden name, favorite color, the blogs and news sites you read, the items you shop for, the credit card numbers you enter into the databases —

Which isn’t necessarily you, of course. You are still an individual human being with a soul and a history, friends and relatives and coworkers who care about you, who can vouch for you; they recognize your face and your voice and your personality, and you are aware of your life as a continuous thread, a dependable unfolding story of yourself that you are telling to yourself, you wake up and feel fairly happy – happy in that bland, daily way that doesn’t even recognize itself as happiness, moving into the empty hours that probably won’t be anything more than a series of rote actions: showering and pouring coffee into a cup and dressing and turning a key in the ignition and driving down streets that are so familiar you don’t even recall making certain turns and stops – though, yes, you are still present, your mind must have consciously carried out the procedure of braking at the corner and rolling the steering wheel beneath your palms and making a left onto the highway even though there is no memory at all of these actions. Perhaps if you were hypnotized such mundane moments could be retrieved, they are written on some file and stored, unused and useless in some neurological clerk’s back room. Does it matter? You are still you, after all, through all of these hours and days; you are still whole —

But imagine yourself in pieces.

Imagine all the people who have known you for only a year or a month or a single encounter, imagine those people in a room together trying to assemble a portrait of you, the way an archaeologist puts together the fragments of a ruined facade, or the bones of a caveman. Do you remember the fable of the seven blind men and the elephant?

It’s not that easy, after all, to know what you’re made up of.”  (pg. 88-89)

Dan Chaon begins his chapters with quotes.  This is one:

“Whatever his secret was, I have learnt one secret too, and namely: that the soul is but a manner of being – not a constant state – that any soul may be yours, if you find and follow its undulations. The hereafter may be the full ability of consciously living in any chosen soul, in any number of souls, all of them conscious of their interchangeable burden.” – Vladimar Nabokov, “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight”  (pg. 93)

In each character in the book, Chaon returns to the theme of people not being who we think they are. The foreshadowing is abundant, yet the reader doesn’t realize it until the end. I love that.

“And it was natural that a person would turn out to be a little different when you really got to know them. No one was exactly what you thought they would be.” – Lucy (pg. 103)

“‘Regrets are idle.” he said at last. ‘”Yet history is one long regret. Everything might have turned out so differently.’

He gave his reflection a small, wistful smile.

‘It’s a good quote, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘Charles Dudley Warner, a very quotable old buzzard. Friend of Mark Twain. Totally forgotten these days.'” (pg. 110)

“The life she had been traveling toward – imagining herself into – the ideas and expectations that had been so solid only a few weeks ago – this life had been erased, and the numb feeling crept up from her hand to her arm to her shoulder and the sound of the barking next door seemed to solidify in the air.

Her future was like a city she had never visited. A city on the other side of the country, and she was driving down the road, with all her possessions packed up in the backseat of the car, and the route was clearly marked on her map, and then she stopped at a rest area and saw that the place she was headed to wasn’t there any longer. The town she was driving to had vanished – perhaps had never been there – and if she stopped to ask the way, the gas station attendant would look at her blankly. He  wouldn’t even know what she was talking about.

‘I’m sorry, miss,’ he’d say gently. ‘I think you must be mistaken. I never heard of that place.’

A sense of sundering.

In one life, there was a city you were on your way to. In another, it was just a place you invented.” (pg. 119-120)

“I’m thirty-two years old, Lucy. You might not realize that yet, but you pass through a lot of different stages in that amount of time. I’ve been a lot of different people since then.’

‘A lot of different people,’ she said.

‘Dozens.’

‘Oh, really?’ she said. And she was aware of that wavering shadow passing over her once again, all the different people she herself had wanted to become, all the sadness and anxiety that she had been trying not to think about now shifting to her like an iceberg. Were they merely bantering again? Or were they in the midst of a serious conversation?

‘So–‘ she said. “So — who are you right now?’

‘I’m not sure exactly,’ George Orson said, and he looked at her for a long time, those green eyes moving in mirrow darts, scoping her face. But I think that’s OK.'” (pg. 126-127)

Await Your Reply was one of my favorite books I read in 2013, and I would highly recommend the audio version. There are some very gruesome scenes, ones that had me cringing behind the wheel as I drove to work. And, you do not want to start this one on a full stomach. Trust me on this.

 

 

 

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