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Jason Panella

Await Your Reply

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There's a sense of dread that hangs over Dan Chaon's latest novel, Await Your Reply — it envelops the three separate story threads as they're introduced, and just continues to escalate until the three tales intertwine at the end. And, to give Chaon's ability as a writer deserved credit, the feeling of dread continues well after the novel's closing chapter.

Chaon — a National Book Award finalist for his short story collection Among the Missing — rotates through the three stories here: recent high school graduate Lucy runs away from her old life with her compelling history teacher, George Orson; perpetual underachiever Miles travels to the Arctic Circle after receiving a cryptic, paranoid letter from his long-vanished twin Hayden; and Ryan, a depressed college dropout, abandons his life for a new one — new ones, even — as a identity thief.

It's hard to talk about Await Your Reply at length without giving too much away. In fact, the less you know about the novel going in, the better. Chaon does a great job of shifting the novel's chronology around to trickle the plotlines out as he sees fit. It's a gimmick that could have been hackneyed, but Chaon makes it work here. He seems more interested in filling in the lives of his characters than constructing some complex whodunit — and result is a more nuanced, creepy affair than sensory jarring thriller.

The crux of Await Your Reply is the nature of identity, especially with how fluid the notion has become as people's lives have become inseparable from digital technology. The characters all struggle with age-old identity issues, but these musings are filtered through modern trappings; the fear of becoming a non-entity and existential angst manifest into something more elusive, shifty and — ultimately — unnerving. As one character mentions, after referencing Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," why can't you take both paths?

Chaon's use of language helps move the novel along, too. His sentences are punchy, never losing lucidity or veering into the over-descriptive territory that hinders many of his peers. Chaon paints wonderfully clear autumnal scenes, too, ones that keep feeding that sense of dread: abandoned Nebraskan motels, sparsely populated Yukon moonscapes, lonely cabins hidden in Michigan forests. The list goes on, and never gets too gothic or heavy handed. There are a few wooden conversations in the novel, but they're not common.

Await Your Reply works so well because Chaon seems to effortlessly blend together horror and mystery, provocative cultural critique and hushed philosophical meditation, and — well — a whole lot more. The Lovecraftian build-up of dread might be off-putting to some readers, but I had a hard time putting it down.

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Thanks for posting this review, Jason.

Await Your Reply is my favorite of the books I've read this year. It's the first book I've read from Chaon, though I've put his other two on hold at my local library and am ready to dive into them. Usually I finish a book and put it down and start the next one. Await Your Repy has lingered with me.

I particularly agree with this from your review: He seems more interested in filling in the lives of his characters than constructing some complex whodunit — and result is a more nuanced, creepy affair than sensory jarring thriller. I did not read the book as I would a thriller, racing to get to get to the end as quickly as possible in order to learn what happened. I think this is mainly due to the excellent job Chaon did of fleshing out his characters.

If we keep discuss this book, I can mention two flaws that bothered me; one that stood out to me as I was reading it and one that only occurred to me because I kept thinking about the book after I'd finished it. I'll leave those for another day.

Thanks again for posting this thoughtful review.

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His sentences are punchy, never losing lucidity or veering into the over-descriptive territory that hinders many of his peers.

Thanks for that nice review, Jason. Can you elaborate on the sentence quoted above, maybe name names?

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Thanks for that nice review, Jason. Can you elaborate on the sentence quoted above, maybe name names?

I'm thinking specifically of King of Lovecraft, both authors I respect greatly but don't necessarily love. Without ruining anything, Chaon's novel never really gets into anything supernatural, but it does have the same creepy factor that these guys have. He doesn't have they intense love of descriptors, though.

If we keep discuss this book, I can mention two flaws that bothered me; one that stood out to me as I was reading it and one that only occurred to me because I kept thinking about the book after I'd finished it. I'll leave those for another day.

Yeah, agreed. It's not a perfect book. There are a couple of plotting things that are wonky, and there really are a few lines that just flop on the page. And (no spoilers here) some of the twists other reviews of mentioned? I guessed them from first 100 pages of that book. That didn't detract from the enjoyment I got, though.

And it's also not as good as some of the other well-regarded books I liked from the past few years (The Road, Gilead, etc.) But it's so tight in its construction that I was very impressed. I'm planning on picking his other books up too.

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I finished the book earlier this afternoon. I liked it, but couldn't shake vague memories of T.C. Boyle's Talk Talk, a book I read a few years ago and remember thinking much more highly of than a couple of reviewers I'd read, who compared the book unfavorably to some of Boyle's earlier work.

I hadn't read those books and still haven't so I had no point of reference for Talk Talk, but it kept me interested throughout. I recall the ending being a disappointment, and see that the Amazon listing linked above quotes a New York Times review that claims the ending feels "tacked on."

The ending of Await Your Reply felt just right. I enjoyed the way the story threads came together; I foresaw two of the three threads merging, but was surprised by how the third tied in.

Like my reaction to Talk Talk -- liked it, now time to move on to the next book -- I probably won't track down Chaon's other work anytime soon, although he's definitely on my radar.

Edited by Christian

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Glad you had a positive response, Christian! And I agree about the ending...I did see some of what happened foreshadowed, but I was genuinely surprised by much, and it felt very organic. That sense of ease I get when reading something that could easily be contrived is, to me, a sign of talent.

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Picked it up from the library today. Hopefully I'll have time to read it before I have to take it back.

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Looking forward to your thoughts, Tyler. The fact that the aftereffects of reading this novel are still lingering with me says something, for sure (good things, mind you :-)

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Looking forward to your thoughts, Tyler. The fact that the aftereffects of reading this novel are still lingering with me says something, for sure (good things, mind you :-)

I guess you could say you Await My Comments. So far (50 pages in), the Miles/Hayden storyline reminds me a bit of the hundred or so pages I read of Wally Lamb's I Know This Much is True. I should go back and try reading that one again.

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Finished it last night. The author I've read recently that came to mind for me was Aleskandar Hemon, whose novels also deal with (losing) identity. I was able to follow Chaon's storylines better than Hemon's, though. While I was reading, there were several times that a name would come up and I'd think I had seen it before, but I couldn't remember if I had for sure, which added to the overall feeling of disorientation of the book. There were a couple of scenes I could've done without, but it's a very tightly constructed book on the whole. Chaon also did an effective job of taking some pretty extreme characters and presenting them in a way that made them feel relatable.

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Chaon retweeted something from Random House today:

"Why thank you @randomhouse. RT Enjoying the new @DanChaon "Stay Awake," on sale in 2012. So good & unsettling."

So, new book in 2012. Color me excited.

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Hi Folks - I'm new to the board, at least as far as posting goes (I've followed it from afar for quite a while), but I figured I'd jump in.

I'm a big fan of "Await Your Reply", but I was wondering, has anyone read his earlier novel "You Remind Me of Me" or his collection of stories "Among the Missing"? I have the former on my shelf waiting to be read, but the latter is a fantastic collection of story and if you like "AYR" I highly recommend it.

So there it is. My first post after all this time is about Dan Chaon. Go figure.

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Hi Folks - I'm new to the board, at least as far as posting goes (I've followed it from afar for quite a while), but I figured I'd jump in.

I'm a big fan of "Await Your Reply", but I was wondering, has anyone read his earlier novel "You Remind Me of Me" or his collection of stories "Among the Missing"? I have the former on my shelf waiting to be read, but the latter is a fantastic collection of story and if you like "AYR" I highly recommend it.

So there it is. My first post after all this time is about Dan Chaon. Go figure.

And a good post it is, David!

I have You Remind Me of Me in my "will read in the next few months" pile, and I'm looking forward to it. Thanks for recommendation of his short story collection, too. I always look for it when I browse through used bookstores, but have yet to run across it. I might just have to order it online.

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My wife and I are currently listening to Await Your Reply on audiobook. My second time through, her first. I really haven't listened to a complete audiobook before, so this is a pretty new experience. I absorb knew knowledge better through the written word, but hearing this story makes it feel completely different. I love it.

The second time through, I'm liking it even more. Lots of eerie nuances are being drawn to the forefront, and — now knowing how everything ties together — I'm noticing lots of little things I hadn't the first time. In a way, I'm getting a heavier Lovecraft vibe than I did the first time.

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I finished the book earlier this afternoon. I liked it, but couldn't shake vague memories of T.C. Boyle's Talk Talk, a book I read a few years ago and remember thinking much more highly of than a couple of reviewers I'd read, who compared the book unfavorably to some of Boyle's earlier work.

I hadn't read those books and still haven't so I had no point of reference for Talk Talk, but it kept me interested throughout. I recall the ending being a disappointment, and see that the Amazon listing linked above quotes a New York Times review that claims the ending feels "tacked on."

The ending of Await Your Reply felt just right. I enjoyed the way the story threads came together; I foresaw two of the three threads merging, but was surprised by how the third tied in.

Like my reaction to Talk Talk -- liked it, now time to move on to the next book -- I probably won't track down Chaon's other work anytime soon, although he's definitely on my radar.

Slight thread derailment to highlight my bafflement over Stephen King's choice of Talk, Talk as one of the Best of 2011. Say what?

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Chaon retweeted something from Random House today:

"Why thank you @randomhouse. RT Enjoying the new @DanChaon "Stay Awake," on sale in 2012. So good & unsettling."

So, new book in 2012. Color me excited.

Good Reads reminds us that this new short story collection releases Feb. 7.

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Dan Chaon's 6 favorite collections of terrifying tales includes "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" by Raymond Carver. :blink:

Says Chaon:

Just because the ghosts don't actually materialize out of the shadows doesn't mean they aren't there. Carver is classified as a realist, but the stories in his first collection are infused with such a strange, ambient sense of dread that they seem like ghost stories by default.

Edited by Christian

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I'm currently downloading the e-audio versions of Stay Awake and You Remind Me of Me. I think I'll start with Stay Awake. Very excited to find these through the local library -- with no wait list! That's getting to be a rarity with e-audio titles.

I see mentions of both of these volumes above, but I don't think anyone had read them at the time they posted on them. Any updates on your progress on these volumes, David and/or Jason? I'm not sure Jason ever acquired a copy of Stay Awake, but David writes above that he has a copy of You Remind Me of Me.

Also, tried to download an e version of Chaon's Fitting Ends, described thusly:

Fitting Ends is the first collection of fiction by the acclaimed author of the National Book Award finalist Among the Missing and now appears in this newly revised edition with two never before... (description fizzles out here; not sure why)

However, it turned out to be an ebook, not e-audio, for the Kindle. Maybe later, when I have a Kindle, or can get my Kindle app on the laptop to work again. I hadn't heard of Fitting Ends.

Edited by Christian

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I have both Stay Awake and You Remind Me, but haven't read either. I have a weird "book queue" system — a staging area for what's up next to read — and Stay Awake is in there, which means I'll probably get to it in the next two months.

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Whoa. If the rest of Stay Awake is anything like the opening story, Bees, we have a major contendah on our hands. (Contender for what, I'm not sure, but you catch my drift.) Listening, I thought, "This is what I've been wanting in contemporary horror stories," although to be honest, I'm not sure what "this" is -- what Chaon's story has that's lacking in other contemporary horror fiction. Also, I'm not sure Stay Awake is considered horror fiction. Truth is, I couldn't remember how the collection had been characterized in reviews I'd read. In retrospect, the name Stay Awake might be a clue, eh?

A quick Google search took me to this review, which tells me:

First published in the McSweeney's collection "Mammoth Treasure of Thrilling Tales" and later selected for "Best American Short Stories 2003, "The Bees" was a response to guest editor Michael Chabon's request for a story that crossed genres between literary fiction and the traditional categories of popular fiction (horror, sci-fi, adventure, etc). Chaon went for horror - and as it turns out, this challenge of fusing the supernatural with realism generated a spate of other well-crafted, inventive stories that were written over the past 10 years.

I am officially excited about listening to the rest of this book. Don't let me down, Dan!

EDIT: I'm reminded of the power of a well-written book review.

Edited by Christian

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Catching up, Stay Awake was fantastic, but You Remind Me of Me, which I finally finished yesterday, was a bit of a drag. That's surely my fault, in part. I stopped and started it a few times, decided to give up on it once and set it aside for many weeks before returning to it. That killed any narrative momentum the book might have been building.

I returned to the book, got over my confusion as I tried to play catch-up with a story I'd set aside too long, got back on track ... and then completely lost the narrative thread toward the end of the story. I don't know how that happened, but the experience was pretty much the opposite of what I went through with Await Your Reply; instead of story threads coming together, the separate stories felt increasingly fractured and confused.

I can't blame the author completely for this, but I'm not sure my reaction is entirely my fault.

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Related: Dan Chaon raves about the new Joyce Carol Oates novel, Carthage.

 

Joyce Carol Oates’s brilliant, weirdly structured new novel presents some problems for a reviewer who wants to persuade people to read it. First, the book contains some blow-the-top-of-your-head-off twists that would be immoral and unfair to reveal. Second, and more problematically, the somewhat-slow first hundred pages give no hint of just how surprising and amazing the novel is going to be.

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Hmmm. I just finished the first of 16 parts to the Carthage audiobook, and there are so many potential red herrings. Most concerning: Iraq war vets and rabid fundamentalist Christians. 

 

Please oh please tell me this book isn't going to be so simplistic as to hang the central crime on stereotypes. Oates is better than that ... right? 

 

EDIT: Just looked at my previous post with Chaon's excerpt and already feel reassured.

Edited by Christian

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