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Await Your Reply

August 16, 2010

Dan Chaon, in Await Your Reply, has built a complicated three-part novel, with three, alternating close third person narrators, who seem for a long time to be three separate protagonists but end up being connected in the strangest and most integral of ways. (Spoiler alert: I will reveal the ending of the book so if you haven’t read it and want to be surprised, stop here.)

As I wrote in my previous post on Chaon, one of the things that particularly interests me is how he keeps the reader going through the first half of the book, with three alternating narratives that are not obviously related. I have a few theories.

One, he’s Dan Chaon, and if you’ve read and enjoyed anything else he’s written, you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. That sounds flip but I mean it sincerely. The impact of his work stays with you, and you trust he will again make reading worth your time.

Two, as with Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women, each of the narratives is relatively interesting, though none of the main characters, Ryan, Lucy, or Miles, is terribly attractive or likable, and Chaon does not write with the same sparkling intensity that Walbert does.

Third, and this, to my mind, is where Chaon stands out, there is the architecture. While I didn’t consciously see it as I was reading for the first time, looking back now, I’m astounded by how intricate and purposeful it is. Take the beginning of the novel. The first, very short chapter shows a horrific scene: a father and a son (Ryan, one of the three main characters) driving to the hospital, Ryan’s severed hand in a cooler. Cut to the other two characters in two short chapters that introduce them, then back to Ryan, with Chapter Four moving the reader slightly back in time, showing the scene in which Ryan’s hand is beginning to be severed. Another break to the other characters. Then, the next time we meet Ryan, we know by the fourth paragraph that he still has both hands. Chaon has taken us even further back in time, without giving any dates, without saying in any obvious way that this gruesome incident is yet to come, and we follow along without confusion. We see Ryan at an airport, thinking about playing a song on the guitar, and his hands are described. Chaon trusts his readers,  trusts that we’ll follow the time switches, that we’ll see Ryan’s hands without having them explicitly pointed out to us. He trusts, also, that we’ve read enough novels to understand that this is what novels often do. We can wait for resolution.

Side note: In Chaon’s first novel, You Remind Me of Me, the chapters are untitled except for the date (month, day, and year), situating the action in chronological time. I wonder whether Chaon’s confidence in himself and the reader made him leave that off in his second novel.

After the opening, the reader is always on some level reading to get back to that scene where Ryan’s hand is being severed. Why did it happen? What led up to it? These questions stay in the back of one’s mind as one reads the three, seemingly disconnected narratives. And the novel delivers on these questions, slowly and surely. Chaon ends his novel with a move similar to Walbert’s: he completes the scene of Ryan’s hand being severed on the last pages of the novel, now that the reader understands everything that led up to it.

(Which leads me to wonder: should I consider such a device, either holding off on the completion of a pivotal scene, or starting with something that happens close to the end of the novel then spooling back to structure my novel? Walbert’s decision, to my thinking, is motivated thematically and emotionally–the emotional impact on the reader is much bigger when the scene of the first Dorothy dying of starvation comes at the end of the book. Chaon’s move seems more structural, perhaps a “genre” move in the sense that it is related to suspense and pay off rather than a deeper understanding of theme. Right now, I’m preferring Chaon’s move–the final scene goes a long way to complete the story but does not attempt to provide a one-frame psychological “answer” for everything that the characters go through. That said, I’m writing a psychological novel so a more plot-driven move might be incongruous.)

Chaon also sets up some low-frequency parallels among the narratives from the beginning. While they don’t fully connect the story, they signal to the reader that something is being constructed; this is not random. Each character is on a journey–by car or plane. Each character is wondering about his or her identity, moving, in a sense, away from one identity but not, as one would think, to another identity but to a place that questions the whole concept of identity, or of a single identity, I’m still not sure. (This comes later, but the seeds are planted early on.) Maybe this would be enough–three stories all related to the theme of identity?

But Chaon does more, wrapping the stories tighter and tighter around each other until, ding, we get the pay off and figure out how it all fits together.

Now, what’s terribly interesting to me about the pay off is that we don’t realize two elements crucial to the construction of the story until the last 30-50 pages, depending on how astute we are as readers. (I wish I had taken better notes as to the exact moments when I realized certain things that then led to my realizing other things.) First, we guess that a secondary character, the older lover of our main female character Lucy, is really the missing Hayden, who is the brother of another main character, Miles. Bells go off. We understand just how clever, and bad, this character is.

Second, and most important to me because it relates to a question I have about my novel in progress, we understand after some more pages what this means in terms of chronological time. The three narratives that have been alternating cannot have actually happened at the same time. In fact, we understand that Ryan’s entire story, if thought of in chronological time, takes place BEFORE the story of Lucy starts. Wow. The most important thing about this is not what it says about Chaon’s phenomenal skills as a writer (how the heck did he make that work??) but that as a reader, you never feel jerked around. You never feel like you’ve been tricked, or that you should have known before you did. You just feel excited, pleased to have figured it out, like a puzzle you’ve worked on for a week and have finally completed.

Conclusions related to decisions I need to make

A writer can tell two stories in the same narrative time that take place in different chronological times without having to signal this to the reader immediately.

It is worth considering using a device at the beginning that builds suspense and gives the reader something to read for.

Parallels of all kinds can make different stories cohere.

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