Monday, March 5, 2012

This Entertaining Reply Has An Identity Crisis

I was a bit skeptical when a friend handed me a copy of Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply, a literary novel about identity theft. While literary types know their way around elegant prose and the innermost thoughts of well-rounded characters, they tend to stumble on action and plot. Still, the book's back-cover bore blurbs from long-time genre scribe Peter Straub and recent horror convert Justin Cronin. "Try it," my friend said. "It's weird. You'll probably like it."

Fair enough, then.

At first, the lives of Ryan Schuyler, Lucy Lattimore and Miles Cheshire seem to share little in common. A college-age slacker, Ryan has reunited with his birth father, taking advantage of a wrongful pronouncement of death after he ran away from campus. Lucy has skipped town after high school graduation with her history teacher, determined to start a new life with someone who actually cares about her. And Miles, well, he's doing what he's always done, namely search for his schizophrenic twin Hayden, a brilliant sociopath who uses others' identities as though they're Kleenex. Sure, they seem a disparate bunch. But when issues of individuality and identity are at stake, peoples' narratives can entwine in unexpected ways.

Chaon certainly throws genre fans a bone in Reply's opening, with Ryan's father racing him to a hospital, his severed hand stuck in an ice-packed cooler. Soon enough, we learn that he lost the appendage due to a nasty man with a very personal grudge against his dad. Intense stuff. But Reply soon shifts into literary mode, musing at length over issues of personal character. Lucy mulls over the meaning instilled by household chattles and Miles considers how childhood imaginings can steer later life -- for pages and pages. For some reason, literary authors love tackling such abstract subjects in story form, even when a personal essay might prove more apropos. Fortunately, Chaon snaps the book back to genre by the end, and even though that makes the action uneven, he still manages a corker of an ending. I won't give anything away except to say that Reply's conclusion might remind readers of the Academy Award-winning film The Usual Suspects. Just prepare yourself to venture through a well-written book that doesn't quite know what it wants to be in order to get there.

(Picture: CC 2009 by the urban mermaid; Hat Tip: Bill Gozansky Photography)


dolorah said...

Interesting review. Sometimes I don't mind wading through uncertainty if the characters are well written.


Loren Eaton said...

You'd probably enjoy this then, Donna. Chaon is a good writer.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I'm still fascinated by the genre-literary split, its historical specificity, and the way both sides have entrenched.

It's hard to generalize, but it seems both Hamlet and The Illiad may have in common this lack of concern. Both have a driving central narrative, starting with a central injustice. Both have a more or less compelling plot. Both abandon that plot for digressions into psychology, history, &c., much in the way that literary authors prefer complex considerations to straightforward plot mechanisms. Both climax in a recognizable generic manner: Hamlet with noir's blood-drenched orgy of death; the Illiad with an epic-fantasy-worthy moment of unexpected forgiveness and connection, allowing for a moment of peace amid endless war.

It seems as though popular fiction has streamlined plot mechanisms, sometimes at the expense of complexity or wisdom. Literary fiction has made an art out of complex characterization, often by throwing everything else out.

I'm glad to see them re-uniting, even if they make for awkward unions, carrying the baggage of 100 years of bitter divorce proceedings.

Loren Eaton said...

I really wish that both sides hadn't become so entrenched. I save most of my criticism on this blog for literary writers, mainly because they tend to be sort of snobbish about their compositional excellency. But truth be told, I really wish genre scribes would up their writing game. Many of them feel like scribblers, and there's no reason why they shouldn't aim a little higher.