Await Your Reply wrecked me

awaityourreply

I finished reading Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply two weeks ago, and it wrecked me. I haven’t been able to read more than ten pages in any book since, which kind of makes sense considering Chaon’s novel is so fucking good it blew my mind.

This is the kind of novel that when I sit back and think about it (and I do it a lot lately since everything else I read makes me think, gee whiz, this isn’t Await Your Reply) my heart beats a little differently in my chest and I sigh dreamily.

To say Await Your Reply is a novel about the Internet or Identity feels a little dismissive, even though those descriptors are accurate. The book is also about family and how you define your family; brotherhood; sisterhood; self-definition; and trust.

Chaon illustrates his ideas through the interweaving stories of three people, Miles Chesire who has traveled to the upper reaches of Canada searching for his schizophrenic genius twin brother Hayden; Ryan Schuyler a twenty-year-old college-dropout living with the biological father he just met in the backwoods of Michigan and running identify theft scams; and Lucy Lattimore, a just-graduated high schooler who is skipping her small Ohio town with her Maserati-driving history teacher.

While each segment carries its own weight in the over-arching story, the Miles/Hayden twin brothers arc is by far the most intriguing. It’s here where Chaon seems to have the most fun playing with language and our minds. Miles’ quest to find his brother is the strongest, most readable because he seems to be the only character with any direction. Plus, Hayden, the estranged brother is one of those characters who intermittently seems like an evil genius and a poor victim and is probably a little bit of both.

Lucy and Ryan, are both incredibly young and do stupid things because they’re young. Their struggle to find themselves, come of age so to speak, in the shifty sands of increasingly harder to define identity is interesting, but it still feels like the sort of thing all late-teens and early twentysomethings go through. It’s only when Lucy and Ryan’s story dovetails into Miles’ story that their plight seems to take on real significance.

There’s a lot of writerly hijinks going on here to make this suspense novel work, and Chaon makes it work in a way that not only makes sense, but doesn’t make the reader feel like they’ve had the wool pulled over their eyes. The fact that he’s pulled this off in a way that is so satisfying is amazing.

This is one of those books, kind of like Philip Roth’s Everyman that sticks with you long after you’ve finished it. Chaon makes you question what it is you use to define yourself and how ephemeral so many of the things we think of as making up our identity are.

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12 Comments

  1. Jason 26.Nov.09 at 12:27 pm

    Yay! My wife and I both loved this book (though I have to admit I was a little more moved by You Remind Me Of Me).

    Reply
  2. Tim R 29.Nov.09 at 4:32 pm

    Sounds like an interesting read–I’ll have to look it up. In the mean time, if you’re looking for that same kind of ridiculously good, once-in-a-century kind of book, try looking up “East of Eden” by Steinbeck. Quite possibly the best book I’ve ever read. 🙂

    Reply
  3. Marie 01.Dec.09 at 7:24 pm

    I really need to read this. I’ve read so many blog posts now by folks who just had their socks knocked off by it. Have to read it! 🙂

    Reply
  4. mary 03.Jan.10 at 8:05 am

    Just finished reading the book. I felt agitated the whole time I read it, perhaps due to never feeling like I had a grasp on who was real. Can someone help me tie together the ending. I still feel a bit graspless.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  5. Jodi 04.Jan.10 at 10:40 am

    DO NOT READ THIS COMMENT IF YOU HAVEN’T READ AWAIT YOUR REPLY (and why haven’t you read it yet? It rules).

    Mary did you realize the history teacher and Ryan’s dad were Hayden, Miles’ brother? Basically, Chaon’s playing around with the timeline and our minds at the same time.

    Reply
  6. Dustin 08.Apr.10 at 4:50 am

    *~ SPOILER ALERT! ~*

    I’m still a tad confused, as well. When I finished the book, I was under the impression that the real Jay was George Orson. If George was Hayden as well, when did that happen in the timeline, and what happened to him in Africa?

    Also, were the Russian men in Africa supposed to be the same men Ryan ran into in Vegas?

    Reply
    1. Leslie 06.Mar.16 at 9:45 am

      — SPOILER ALERT — SPOILER ALERT—

      response to Dustin: The real Jay only appeared briefly in the book, when he met “Mike Hayden” and they joined forces. The Jay who called Ryan was actually Hayden. After Ryan’s hand was cut off, Hayden decided to become George Orson and teach school. According to my calculations, the timeline is: October 2006, Ryan leaves school. May 2007, Ryan’s hand is cut off and Hayden goes to Ohio. June 2007, Hayden sends a letter to Miles and Lydia, who go to Inuvit. June 2008, Hayden and Lucy o to Nebraska and then to the Ivory Coast. Yes, the Russian trio are the same men — they’re all wearing Hawaiian shirts, and the one guy has spiky hair. And if they’ve hunted him down and are now in a room with him guarded by a guy with a gun, there’s no doubt what has happened to him.

      Reply
  7. Jodi 08.Apr.10 at 4:12 pm

    I appreciate the SPOILER ALERT, Dustin, and here comes another one:
    *
    *
    *
    (i need to push this down so it doesn’t appear in the sidebar)

    Hayden was both Jay and George Orson. I think the final or “most recent’ timeline in the book is the George/Lucy stuff. The Ryan/Jay stuff happened before Hayden became George. Of course this is a wild guessed based on memory (I loaned my copy of the book to my sister).

    Reply
  8. Nancy Williams 10.May.12 at 9:42 am

    My question is, what happened to the real Jay?

    Reply
  9. Laura 19.Aug.12 at 9:46 pm

    My problem with Chaon is that he is a compulsive user of “can’t help but” and “couldn’t help but.” Drives me NUTS!!! I wish his editor had sliced SOME, if not all, of those. Messy furniture in the way of the narrative and plot. He does the same thing in his short stories. WHY? He doesn’t even have to jettison the non-standard usage in favor of more prescriptive forms; he could write in a more lean fashion: i.e., “He noticed” rather than (wince) “He couldn’t help but notice” or “He thought” instead of “He couldn’t but think…” If he needs to put some kind of spin on it, I suppose he could throw in an adverb (oh, we editors worry about adverbs!) “Immediately he noticed …”

    I tell you, the library will not be pleased with my pencil marks on all those “couldn’t help but”s. YUCK!!!! I plan to read two more of his books (they’re on hold at the library) and I am preparing for more late-night spasms.

    Oh, the plot? Well…I was engrossed but having been PROFOUNDLY annoyed by Julian Barnes’ infuriating Sense of An Ending, I wondered if Chaon wasn’t doing something similar, creating a snow globe reality the reader was supposed to massage (that old “if your narrator can’t tell the truth, what part of the story is anything but fiction” tack). Were there really twin brothers, was Miles really the narrator or was Hayden building the “vanished twin” idea….we had an omniscient viewpoint in that we saw Jay and Ryan WITHOUT Miles’ being present; yet the book concluded with our wily protagonist, the shapeshifting Hayden and his delusions and alter egos and promises and musing. It was clear Hayden pretended to be Jay, and that he was also Mike; but maybe, like “The Usual Suspects,” the whole book was a story concocted by….Keyser Soze!

    Reply
    1. Jodi 19.Aug.12 at 9:52 pm

      I never noticed the ‘help buts’ which surprises me, because I’m usually the first to pick up on stuff like that. I also just wanted to drop in with a “hell yeah” about the annoying A Sense of an Ending. Man, I hated that one.

      Reply

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