Monday, December 14, 2009

Review: Are you who you say you are?

Who knew that you could create a literary work based on Internet identity theft? And that it would be taken seriously? Yes, even with one of those classic email stories where there's a woman in Africa who is looking for someone to share her $43 million inheritance after a wealthy family member kicks the bucket, but she needs to put it into your bank account in order for it all to work out...etc, etc.

Dan Chaon's new novel, Await Your Reply, quietly tackles the issues of identity in the 21st century world in an interesting, fragmented - or perhaps the better word is shattered - kind of way. It takes to heart the epigraph from the second part, which is from Vladimir Nabokov's underrated gem, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (which is also interested in these ideas): 'Whatever his secret was, I have learnt one secret too, and namely: that the soul is but a manner of being--not a constant state--that any soul may be yours, if you find and follow its undulations. The hereafter may be the full ability of consciously living in any chosen soul, in any number of souls, all of them unconscious of their interchangeable burden.' Await Your Reply is slow and methodical as it pieces together (or tears apart) the characters it creates, making the reader always doubt who is in the scene, why they are there, and what they really are. It sounds more intimidating than it actually is.

It's a trio of stories that work as point/counterpoints to one another. Story one: Ryan Schuyler just found out who his real biological father is when said father calls him up one day and delivers the bombshell. In order to make up for lost time, Ryan drops out of Northwestern and accompanies his father on his business deals, which we learn are quite shady, requiring false names, false addresses, and false histories.

Story two: orphaned Lucy Lattimore is sick and tired of her small no-name town life and decides to run away with her high school history teacher George Orson in his hotrod Maserati. They arrive at this middle of nowhere Lighthouse Motel, where George claims is just a jumping off point. But they stay here longer than Lucy anticipates, making her suspicious of what George is really doing in this new no-name town.

Story three: Miles Cheshire is on the hunt for his twin brother, Hayden, who was always troublesome. Maybe he was a genius or maybe he was just autistic - no one can say. Hayden is the probable reason their parents died, writes paranoid letters claiming that the government is watching what he says, and keeps changing persons and histories in order to keep out of harm's way. Miles feels he is hot on his brother's trail, but in all honesty, Hayden could be anywhere. He's just guessing that he's up in the middle of the Canadian Northwest Territories, where his imagined fantasy castle he always thought of - based on Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings - is located.

The nice thing about this book is that though you probably know where it's going, it's about the journey and seeing the 'truths' slowly uncover themselves, see how the puzzle is attempted to be put together. Though it's quite a pageturner while reading, it kind of sours during the aftertaste; its cleverness while you peruse the text becomes somewhat hackneyed when you think back to it. Probably because there's more melancholy and thrills than lines of poetic prose. It still is more interested in a 'gotcha' sense:
"Fugue state." Maybe it was the combination of the discordant arpeggios from the conservatory and the leaves in the street. "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.
It's still an ambitious project, and one that certainly works and resonates, even with the wonderful melodrama. How could a work like this not, as it begins with a severed hand beside Ryan and his father crying, saying it'll be all right?


Diane said...

I thought this book was rather good. It really held my interest for sure.

Salvatore said...

It's definitely one worth reading. For some reason it hasn't sat well with me after finishing it. Maybe it'll take another reading to make sure. But it was certainly worth the ride.

Kari said...

Ah, there's a great site about those scams, people scamming the scammers:

I've seen this book a lot lately, but I never knew what it was about. Thanks for the review, Sal.