This book has been chosen as a Great Read

Author: Dan Chaon

Ballantine, 2009

Filed under: Literary

The ruin lifestyle is what a dude named Breez calls it in Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply. We’re at the brink of destruction: melting polar caps, ocean dead zones, a looming food shortage. “Before long,” Breez says, “the question will have to be asked: how quickly can you eliminate three or four of the world’s six billion people?”

If you’re someone like Breez, the first step is to eliminate yourself. Leave home and slough off your original name and persona. Steal a new identity, or several. Live off of stolen credit cards procured with stolen birth certificates, and save your scammed cash in offshore accounts. Be Mark in Nevada, Vladimir in the Ivory Coast, Henry in Kiev. Never let anyone know who you really are. Forget everything about who you once were.

The identity of the 21st century—fluid, malleable, subject to change without notice or warning.

Await Your Reply follows three separate (but not too separate) storylines: Miles pursues his malevolent, maybe-schizophrenic twin brother up to an abandoned research station in the farthest reaches of Canada’s Northwest Territories; teen Lucy leaves her Ohio home with her history teacher and ends up at an abandoned motel in Nebraska; Ryan fakes his own death at Northwestern and goes to live with his newly-discovered biological father in an abandoned Michigan cabin. In all three of these storylines you’ll find scrambled chronologies, flashbacks, flashforwards, and cryptic clues, as well as that pervasive sense of abandonment, and in the hands of a lesser writer, this novel would be a maddening, teeth-grinding mess.

But Dan Chaon is not a lesser writer, and this novel is riveting. It has plenty of mystery and suspense, but also delivers everything you expect from literary fiction. Miles’s story in particular grabbed my imagination, and in Miles’s mad pursuit of his twin, Hayden, Chaon even manages to ascribe portent (not to mention the sense of abandonment) to sugary breakfast cereal: “A box of Cap’n Crunch cereal, almost unrecognizably faded, was sitting on the table, next to a bowl and a spoon and a can of condensed milk.”

Even places that aren’t yet abandoned are in the process of being so: “They were still in the house above the Lighthouse Motel … their bags packed and the rooms hushed in the way of places that are about to be abandoned.”

And people, too. If they’ve not yet been left behind, or have left others behind, it’s only a matter of time:

It made him think of a term he had read in his Psychology class. “Fugue.” A dissociative psychological state marked by sudden, unexpected travel away from home or one’s customary place of work, with inability to recall one’s past, confusion about personal identity, or the assumption of a new identity, or significant distress or impairment.

Which actually sounded very interesting …

Chaon seamlessly brings these three storylines together, without gimmicks or trickery, and he takes his sweet time doing it. It’s a dark, lonely journey, one that will entrance fans of both literary and mystery/suspense fiction. Instead of a whodunit, Await Your Reply is a whoisit. Without giving away any secrets, let’s just say that none of these characters are who they appear to be, and as soon as you read the last page, you’ll want to start over again to note all the clues you missed the first time.

Do it. And as you read this book for the second time, keep in mind this variant on Theseus’ paradox: if a person strips away every piece of his identity and replaces them with new pieces, is he still the same person? Chaon provides a hint to his answer through one of Breez’s favorite Latin phrases, Eadem mutata resurgo:

“Although changed, I shall arise the same.”

Similar books: Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell; You Remind Me of Me, by Dan Chaon