Secrets and Lies in ‘Await Your Reply’

BY Arts Desk  August 24, 2009 at 6:20 PM EST

'Await Your Reply' by Dan Chaon
Last week, police announced the largest credit card identity fraud case in history. Today, a new novel about similar lost, discarded and stolen identities appears in bookstores. In Dan Chaon’s “Await Your Reply,” three independent story lines revolve around one another, as characters attempt to keep their secrets secret: A Cleveland man follows his missing, schizophrenic twin to the Arctic Circle after searching for him for decades. A high school senior willingly skips town with her history teacher, but becomes suspicious when they arrive at an eerie Nebraska motel that’s no longer in business. A college sophomore leaves campus after learning that his uncle is really his father, and ends up in the backwoods of Michigan before resorting to desperate measures.

As these characters pull away from their pasts and the people in them, they pull others into the lives they are striving to create. Chaon conjures unsettling questions about the identities we embody: Is it possible to walk out of one life and into another? Do we have the right to do so? And how do we reconcile the innate privacy of the self with the litany of numbers (social security, credit card) that represent us and that make us increasingly vulnerable to hackers and con artists? In this novel, long, internal reflections punctuate high-velocity chapters and suspenseful revelations. The narrative lingers over moments of precise and surprising description before characters interject with understated and manipulative dialogue.

Chaon’s writing often has the uneasy quality of an urban legend, of a late-night campfire story, or an unsettling article buried in the local section of the newspaper. Author of two short story collections, he has been the recipient of both the Pushcart Prize and the O. Henry Award. His second collection, “Among the Missing,” was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award and was named one of the year’s 10 best books by the American Library Association. His first novel, “You Remind Me of Me,” was published in 2004.

Chaon co-chairs Oberlin College’s Creative Writing Department (full disclosure: he was my adviser and teacher there for the last four years). We caught up on Friday to discuss his latest book, teaching and the dark side of the American Dream.

[Listen to the author discuss complicated families, narrative secrecy and cinematic influences in this audio interview]