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August 23, 2009

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Misery's dark shape

LIFE is not easy in the sleepy American midwest where in this story identities are stolen and mental illness abounds, as Lucinda Rosenfeld reports.

Readers be warned: before sitting down with Dan Chaon's ambitious, gripping and unrelentingly bleak new novel, you might want to catch a "Seinfeld" rerun or two. Jerry and the gang's quips will be the last laugh-lines you'll get for a while. The book opens with a Northwestern University dropout named Ryan - one of three alienated main characters - shivering in the passenger seat of a car, his severed hand sitting next to him in a Styrofoam cooler.

The misery and suffering continue from there. "Await Your Reply," a strangely benign title for a very un-benign book, features drownings, car accidents, hangings, arson, deaths by freezing and by toxic fumes, torture and suspicious heart attacks. All that's missing is a mauling by a Doberman pinscher.

What's more, all the characters are morbidly depressed and, if still breathing, seriously considering altering that fact. Since the action takes place largely in the sleepy towns and cities of the Midwest, I felt at times as if I was watching an unfunny Cohen brothers movie.

By Page 200, I was also completely hooked, a credit both to Chaon's intricate and suspenseful plotting and to some of the most paranoid material to hit American literature since Don DeLillo's "White Noise."

The book is essentially three separate stories that link up in the final pages. Ryan of the Severed Hand, a middle-class kid from Iowa, is in danger of flunking out of college when an identity-thief-cum-new-age-pothead, Jay, contacts him to say that Ryan is adopted and that he (Jay) is his real father.

Ryan feels as if his whole life until now has been a fraud, and he nihilistically joins Jay in his criminal ventures, most of them conducted via computer from a cabin filled with beer cans and candy wrappers in the woods of Michigan.

Ryan's parents, meanwhile, believe their son has committed suicide and conduct a funeral, which Ryan reads about on the Web. In Chaon's telling, Ryan feels both sorrow and liberation at his own "death" and subsequent rebirth under the assumed identities of various (stolen) "virtual" avatars.

In the second story line, Miles, a lonely man in his 30s working for a mail-order magic operation in Cleveland, lives in pursuit of his charismatic, paranoid schizophrenic identical twin brother, Hayden, who vanished some 10 years earlier, and possibly murdered their mother and stepfather. Here, Chaon deftly shows us how a mentally ill sibling, even one in absentium, can continue to dominate the "normal" members of his family, preventing them from getting on with their own lives.

Objectively, Miles realizes that Hayden is insane and past the point of rescue or re-adoption into mainstream society. Yet Miles is never entirely convinced that Hayden's conspiracy theories are hokum. What if Goldman Sachs really is out to kill him? Chaon nicely handles Miles's childhood recollections of his brother - and shows how Hayden, despite his delusions, outwits Miles at every turn, even when discussing his illness.

In the novel's third and least convincing story line, Lucy, an Ohio girl of modest means who has just finished high school, runs away with her mysterious, Maserati-driving history teacher, George, in pursuit of a new start and the vast riches he promises to secure them.

But the George-Lucy plot never comes to life as the others do, because, for one thing, Lucy is a confusing character, at once hopelessly naive and wise to the point of jaded.

Without giving too much away, not all the characters in "Await Your Reply" are who they appear to be in the beginning. The title itself derives from the notorious e-mail frauds in which a stranger from sub-Saharan Africa requests the recipient's aid in securing a lost fortune in gold. The underlying premise of Chaon's book seems to be that, in the modern world, identity has become so fluid as to no longer necessarily exist.

This will not be news to students of 20th-century French post-structuralist theory. But it is rare to see the position worked into a novel, the very existence of which would seem to throw this equation into doubt.

Chaon is a dark, provocative writer, and "Await Your Reply" is a dark, provocative book; in bringing its three strands together, Chaon has fashioned a braid out of barbed wire.


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