JC: When we first started 3G1B, it was a way for us to talk about books together over long distances. Now, of course, three has become four, and while our conversations have turned towards the vagaries of writing and publishing, our en masse book reviews have been replaced by other features that aren’t as difficult to orchestrate as four broad readers reading the same book at the same time, and the accompanying tome-like posts. Fortunately, JE and I coincided recently on Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply and had the chance to discuss it.
JE: Dan Chaon knows when to quit writing and tell a story. And man, can the dude spin a yarn. Literary fiction needs more books like this. During one of our recent conversations, I made the audacious generalization that: “good storytelling is more about the distribution of pertinent information, rather than the manufacture of said information–how and when and in what manner the writer distributes it.” “Await Your Reply” is a perfect example of this. Chaon exhibits astonishing finesse in distributing the necessary information within this puzzle of a novel. In lesser hands (which is just about any writer out there), this novel could’ve been gimmicky with its sleight-of-hand narrative approach. But Chaon sells it on a sentence level. The guy writes beautifully, and he hardly ever navel-gazes. In fact, this book was such a mercilessly compelling un-put-downable read, that there were times when I wish Chaon would’ve slowed down a lingered a bit, but I suppose I might’ve grown impatient and skimmed, so badly did I want to see the story to its conclusion.
JC: I know exactly what you mean, JE, but there are a lot of cases where adding what is meant to be depth to a story, ends up being dead weight. What I thought about when I set the book down, besides Holy Shit, was how stingy he was with revelatory information, knowing which morsels to feed the reader at every moment. I can imagine lots of ham-fisted attempts to pull off this feat of storytelling, which end up either giving up too much information, or not giving enough to keep the reader happy.
But one aspect of Dan Chaon’s writing that impresses me is how well he defines his characters. At root, this is a book about identity, and he has created these nebulous, ghost-like characters, shapeshifting from one name to another. But even with these ambiguities, Chaon manages to give the reader a startlingly clear depiction. How do you give a clear depiction of ambiguity? It’s a paradox, but DC pulls it off. What he does is point out how much of our identity is tied up in the names and things around us, and work his people from the raw material of fear, hate, love. If you weren’t JE, JE, who would you be? Killer.
JE: I think the answer to your question ‘how do you give a clear depiction of ambiguity,’ is the same answer to how you give a clear depiction of anything: details and context. Chaon’s characters are dichotomies, but they are exceptionally well framed and contextualized. And they are very self-conscious, which means asking themselves a lot of questions– it’s not always the answers that are of utmost importance, often it’s the questions. In the case of Lucy, our sui generis, the fundamental questions are: How do I define myself? What do I make of myself? Which tools in my limited toolbox do I chose to work with? And most of all: How do I contextualize myself, when I can’t answer the rest of these questions?
What makes Chaon’s characterization in AYR even more impressive to me, is the fact that the characters are not all that sympathetic. I’m not rooting for them, exactly. I’m just totally fascinated by them, and the circumstances in which they are enmeshed. I’m guessing that Chaon actually exercised some restraint, here, as nothing will define a character quicker than his/her sympathies. By creating really sympathetic characters, Chaon would have ultimately been doing a disservice to the identity themes.
JC: I don’t quite agree. I think Miles, Lucy and Ryan are all quite sympathetic in their own ways. Fascinating, yes, and certainly not likeable, but sympathetic. Miles is the least enigmatic of the characters and has the most defined identity, but pathetic as he is, it’s pretty easy to generate some feeling. The thing about these three characters is that they are acted upon, rather than being primary actors, so they have a victim-like vulnerability that one can sympathize with.
What I see are three sets of foils. One from each set is sympathetic and pondering how the identity void in their lives affect them existentially. They once had identities which are quickly fading to dust, generating the existential questions you just talked about. Their respective partners in the threads have accepted, even willed that their identities vanish. They are ghosts and lovers, shadows from the past, and glimpse of possible futures. They’re fascinating too, but decidedly unsympathetic.
JE: I guess where I may lack a little sympathy for Lucy and Ryan (and again, I don’t miss it) is where their victimhood ends, and their selfish decisions begin. It’s like what Sartre said of suicide (which is essentially what these two characters are doing, as far as family and friends are concerned): “Suicide hurts two people. That’s what it’s for.” Whatever Lucy’s relationship with her big sister may have been like, they are family, and those ties invariably run deep, often deeper than we want them to. At the very least, she’s left her sister a lot of explaining to do. And you know Ryan’s folks are dying, no matter how Ryan convinces himself otherwise. So, again, these characters are enriched by virtue of yet another contradiction: I feel sorry for them, but I don’t.
As a storyteller, Chaon just gets it on all levels, understands the importance of contradictions, and how they create tension, and beg for resolution. He understand that the real story lies beneath the story, in the interior lives of his characters. That’s why he brilliantly executes what could otherwise be just a tricky story where the author sits behind the curtain withholding key information. Let’s face it, in terms of story mechanics, the resolution of AYR hinges on a single piece of information, which Chaon deftly withholds and disguises throughout the narrative. How many crappy thriller writers and Hollywood screenwriters would bungle this—by telegraphing the reveal, or failing to create the rich narrative texture necessary to divert the reader? Not old Dan-o, though. He knows how to plant a red herring. I can’t wait to interview him, because one of the questions I want to ask him is how much reverse engineering did he do in this novel?
JC: I’m pretty sure that wasn’t Sartre, but Arthur Miller, in the play about Marilyn. Regardless, I’ll see your quote and raise you a Camus, who said that suicide is the only real philosophical problem. For Camus suicide is the rejection of freedom, yet for Lucy and Ryan, the suicide is the freedom. That’s what these kids have done, and I see them as sympathetic because they are both such damaged personalities trying desperately to escape from a miserable existence. They are manipulated by their counterparts into shedding their skins and, thinking they have become free, renew themselves. They’re wrong, alas.
You’re right about the story mechanics though. Let’s not get bogged down in the philosophy of suicide, because that’s strictly ancillary. The real force is, as you say, in the intricate construction, the controlled pace, and the simply great writing by Chaon. There are a million ways to screw this up, but he nailed it. Await Your Reply is a hell of a book. The interview should be fun too.