“Await Your Reply” by Dan Chaon

Dan Chaon’s 2009 novel Await Your Reply, was on several year-end best-of lists, including Entertainment Weekly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Publisher’s Weekly. Thus it took rather a while for it to work its way down the queue to me at the public library. At which point I tore through it in 3 days.

The novel is told in alternating chapters from three unconnected points of view: Ryan, a college dropout; Lucy, an orphaned 18yo from Ohio; and Miles, who has spent the majority of his adult life searching for his schizophrenic, brilliant, obsessed twin brother Hayden. Though it ranges as far afield as Africa and northern Canada, the book and its characters are decidedly midwestern US, where the characters were raised or are living: Nebraska, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois. Early on, I flipped back to Chaon’s bio. His description of central Ohio, where I grew up, was so uncannily accurate I knew he had to have a connection there. Sure enough, he’s a professor at Oberlin College.

Each of the characters is struggling with identity, in both real-life and theoretical senses. Ryan, Miles and Lucy struggle to figure out who they are, especially in relation to others around them.

It pulled me in immediately, and kept me engaged all the way through:

We are on our way to the hospital, Ryan’s father says.
Listen to me, Son;
You are not going to bleed to death.

Ryan is still aware enough that his father’s words come in through the edges like sunlight on the borders of a window shade. His eyes are shut tight and his body is shaking and he is trying to hold up his left arm, to keep it elevated. We are on our way to the hospital, his father says, and Ryan’s teeth are chattering, he clenches and unclenches them, and a series of wavering colored lights–greens, indigos–plays along the surface of his closed eyelids.

On the sea beside him, in between him and his father, Ryan’s severed hand is resting on a bed of ice in an eight-quart Styrofoam cooler.

It’s a thriller about identity theft in the information age. But it’s also excellently written, deeply characterized, well-plotted literary novel. This reminded me of Big Machine by Victor Lavalle, one of my favorite books from 2009, and Memento, the film by Christopher Nolan. Highly recommended.

2 Responses to ““Await Your Reply” by Dan Chaon”

  1. Steph Says:

    I have this one sitting on the shelf but haven’t gotten to it yet. I loved Big Machine, however, and Memento is a great film, so your review has made me think I should bump this one up the pile. I always worry about multi-narrative stories not necessarily coalescing, but that doesn’t sound like a problem here.

  2. Kate Says:

    I’m really glad you liked this one. I enjoyed it, found it unnerving, and couldn’t put it down. I successfully talked our book club into picking it up (I’m going to start calling our club the “multiple or unreliable narrators club” given the books we’ve read–Oscar Wao, Plague of Doves, Let the Great World Spin, Await Your Reply).

    I liked the young woman character, and her fear of losing who she was if no one knew who she was. I found her inner monologues fascinating.