Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
Your name, your address, and so on; the various websites you visit as you wander through the Internet, your user names and passwords, your birth date, your motherís maiden name, favorite color, the blogs and news sites you read, the items you shop for, the credit card numbers you enter into the databases -- Which isnít necessarily you, of course.
But maybe it is. ďIdentityĒ is a tricky word, with different connotations, different levels of meaning, but in the age of the Internet, these details -- user names, search histories, social networking profiles -- might as well be you. Maybe we give up more than we know; maybe weíre less now than we used to think we are. Maybe not. But when we talk about ďidentity theft,Ē we might be talking about more than we know. Itís hard to speak or write about how the Internet has changed art, has changed culture, the way we define identity. And when someone tries to talk about it, you should, generally speaking, run.
But there are exceptions, and one of them is this: Await Your Reply, Dan Chaonís novel about identity in every sense of the word. Itís the first great novel about the Internet; itís one of the best books of any kind Iíve ever read about identity on any level. It is brilliant and it is essential; it should be required reading not only for anyone who uses the Internet, but for anyone who cares about contemporary American fiction.
Chaonís novel follows three people, all Midwesterners, all, at first, unrelated. Ryan Schuyler is a Northwestern University dropout who is terrified of failure and disappointment, and tired of himself, tired of his family. Lucy Lattimore is an Ohio teenager who just graduated high school and ran away with her former history teacher; they have fallen in love, and left Ohio behind. Miles Cheshire is a Cleveland magic store employee whoís been searching, on and off, for his missing twin brother, a brilliant schizophrenic obsessed with geodesy, symbology and cartography. Schuyler and Lattimore are running away; Cheshire is running toward something he knows he might never find.
All of them become embroiled in issues of identity. Schuyler goes to work with his biological father, an identity thief in rural Michigan. Lattimoreís lover is engaged in a vague moneymaking scheme that she knows little about, but suspects it involves fraud. Schuyler goes to Canada to try to find his brother, who has changed his name and his appearance a number of times, sometimes even using his brotherís identity.
Await Your Reply starts off with incredible tension -- the first pages describe Schuyler being driven to a hospital, his severed hand on ice in a cooler -- and it increases from there. There are close calls, bad omens, frightening encounters with strangers, suspicious instant messages. But for all the suspense, the characters in this novel -- lovingly, accurately, realistically rendered -- are at the forefront. This is a suspense novel in the same sense that Lolita is a romance novel; itís brilliant in the terms of the genre, but the description is insufficient to describe how breathtaking it is on its own. Itís not a book thatís easy to put down -- I finished reading it, perhaps unwisely, late at night, looking up only to suspiciously glance at the monitor of my computer, glowing ominously on my desk. When I reached the last page, I checked my bank account online. I changed the passwords on my email accounts. I burned my bank and insurance statements, and I priced paper shredders on office supply websites. Itís that kind of suspense novel. Every single part of it works.
Chaon is one of the best writers of fiction in America, and this is, by far, his best work yet. No living American author is as good at describing the Midwest and the people who call it their home -- which isnít to say that this is a Midwestern novel, necessarily; itís an absolutely universal work. But Chaon, a Nebraska native who now lives in Ohio, understands the landscape and the people of the American Midwest more than any author I can remember. Even when Await Your Reply takes two characters to Africa, the Midwest is still a major character; we see and consider the country through the eyes of a small-town Ohioan, and we feel for her, and we experience what she does.
Chaon also does an amazing job with writing about the Internet itself, particularly in one tense scene where a young man logging on to his computer gets an unintelligible, ominous instant message from a stranger. Itís one of the most frightening moments of the novel, though thereís no explicit threat, no danger immediately spelled out. Thereís only the sense of danger, but itís hard to imagine any other author setting the mood as effectively and perfectly as Chaon does.
As flawlessly as Chaon renders the characters in this novel, you end up with a sense of unknowing, of wondering whether you know these people at all. And that is, perhaps, the point. The epigraph of the first part of the novel comes from Anna Akhmatova:
ďI myself, from the very beginning,
Seemed to myself like someoneís dream or delirium
Or a reflection in someone elseís mirror,
Without flesh, without meaning, without a name.
Already I knew the list of crimes
That I was destined to commit.Ē
Maybe we already know our potential for good and for evil, and maybe we are capable of seeing our own reflections, in mirrors, sure, but in other people as well. Chaon seems to suggest we might not have earned that kind of certainty about or identities. We sometimes say, when sick or confused or depressed, that we donít feel like ourselves. The characters in this book donít feel like themselves, or they do, but they donít know what to do with that feeling. They donít know who they are. Maybe none of us does.
I canít think of very many contemporary American authors who have tackled as ambitious concepts as Chaon does in this book, and who have done so without making a single false step. The spare brilliance of Chaonís prose, and his uncanny skill at creating unique and uniquely American characters, calls to mind writers like Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Mary Robison. But with this novel, Chaon has surpassed them all. Await Your Reply is a perfect novel, and it is an American masterpiece. We needed this book.
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon