I didn’t know what to expect from this book when I picked it up. I went through nearly a decade believing that Dan Chaon wrote horror novels, and then I saw that he’d won a Pushcart Prize and had been a finalist for the National Book Award, so I revised my ideas about him towards literary fiction (whatever the heck that is.) Then I read a short story of his in Peter Straub’s collection Poe’s Children (subtitled The New Horror) and revised again. And then I read Await Your Reply. Whatever genre this is — and I still don’t know — this was a good book. It was suspenseful, twisty, unexpected, smart, and dark. I’m not sure what it was, but whatever it was, I liked it.
This novel is made up of three strands. In the first, a college student named Ryan gets some very unexpected news: his “uncle” Jay is actually his father, and his parents adopted him at birth. Existential crisis sinks in (and he wasn’t doing so hot this semester anyway) so he leaves college to go live in the Michigan woods with Uncle Jay and learn what Jay calls the “ruin lifestyle” — something illegal, Ryan is pretty sure, something about identity theft, but at first he doesn’t ask too many questions.
In the second strand, a lonely man in his thirties named Miles Cheshire is in pursuit of his paranoid, possibly schizophrenic twin brother Hayden. He’s been doing this for about a decade, and it’s telling on him: he knows objectively that Hayden is delusional and even dangerous, but he can’t quite convince himself that all of Hayden’s conspiracy theories are wrong. I mean, what if Goldman Sachs really is out to get him? What if there really was a giant tower in the Arctic? Hayden is clearly cleverer than Miles, and it skews the data: “Oh, spare me,” Hayden says at one point. “Is that what Mom told you? That I became a so-called schizophrenic because I couldn’t handle Dad’s death? I know you don’t like me to cast aspersions on your intelligence, but really. That’s so completely simple-minded.”
In the third strand, a high-school girl named Lucy leaves her Ohio town with her history teacher, George Orson, headed for (she believes) wealth and romance. Instead, George takes her to a Bates-motel-reminiscent hotel on a dry lake in Nebraska, where they wait for some mysterious deal to work itself out in the Ivory Coast. Lucy is at the same time naive and jaded; she wants her new life to be shiny and perfect, but she also holds it up to the light looking carefully for flaws. And oh, she finds flaws.
Chaon braids these strands together carefully, chapter by chapter. At first you don’t see how they might come together, and then clues start to appear. By a third of the way through the book, I had an idea (which turned out to be about a third right.) As the story got darker and more complicated, I got more and more hooked. I didn’t see the whole picture until the last page, and I’m still not sure I picked up all the clues. This book is engaging, menacing, and beautifully structured, and it packs a wallop.
One of the things I really liked about reading it was that Chaon puts references to other authors — oh, certainly in every chapter, but nearly on every other page. I caught references to Shirley Jackson, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Stephen King, Robert Louis Stevenson, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, HP Lovecraft, and others — and there are sure to be many I missed. All those little gestures are acts of love. It’s always so enjoyable to see them.
Those of you who have read this author, what else would you suggest I try? I like short stories, so I’d be willing to try those. Or You Remind Me of Me? But Await Your Reply was so satisfying, I highly recommend it to those who like a good… whatever this was.