Cannonball Read IV: Await your Reply by Dan Chaon
I'm going to try again. I read well over 52 books last year and reviewed 10. Ugh. This year I will do better!
Await Your Reply is a novel told in short sections about various individuals whose lives eventually intersect. It is one of the rare books written this way where I didn't have full story lines in which I had no interest. Often times in books with multiple stories I find myself skimming one of the stories to get back to the one that compels me. That's not the case in this novel, each story line is equally interesting.
The major story lines include Ryan, who we meet first, as he's rushed to the hospital with his hand in an ice cooler next to him. He and his father have a very complicated relationship, which plays out over the course of the novel tying Ryan up in knots about the nature of family and how you become who you are. It's a complicated spin on nature versus nurture.
Next, we have Miles who is traveling (literally) to the end of the Earth to find his twin brother, who he knows to have schizophrenia, who has been missing and radio silent for the last four or five years. Miles struggles with is possibly misplaced family loyalty and the feeling of loss he has over his missing twin. This might be the one place in the novel where there seems to be undue emphasis. I could be wrong, and I'm not a twin, but if I woke up tomorrow and one of my sisters was just gone you can guaran-damn-tee that the landscape of my life would change forever. That said, the idea that you could be identical to someone with a mental disorder in every other way is compelling. Wally Lamb flushed the premise out quite differently but with astounding grace in I Know This Much Is True.
Next, we have Lucy Lattimer, a recent high school graduate who has run off with her History teacher. It's not long after they've left that the truth about the History teacher starts to present itself. He is not who he has claimed to be, but as the story progresses the reader learns that Lucy has shared so little of herself, and intentionally held back so much, that the same could conceivably be said of her.
Those are the three major story lines and each one is a exploration into identity on multiple levels. It's is giving up too much to say, for instance, that Ryan is in the business of identity theft - even as he's struggling to understand his own identity.
The novel is ultimately, without being polemical or preachy, an exploration of identity construction. What does that name on your driver's license mean? To whom does it matter and why? And more importantly, if I can convince you that I'm someone else and I enjoy it and so do you who's to say I'm not that someone else? How much of that is betrayal and how much of that is just an extension of the kind of games we play when we present our best selves on a first date or a job interview? What are the consequences?
You know long before the end of this book where it's going to end up, but that doesn't make the reading any less enjoyable. Chaon's prose is a pleasure to read. He has a gift for choosing the perfect word when it really matters, and he never condescends to his reader. I like a book that expects me to keep up.
For more of Jack's reviews, check out her blog, Reads for Fun.
This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.