Sun, Aug 23, 2009 - Page 14 News List

Hardcover: US: Who are these people? Well, that depends

Dan Chaon manages to bridge the gap between literary and pulp fiction with a clever, insinuating book equally satisfying to fans of either genre

By Janet Maslin  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

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Dan Chaon’s strange, stunning new novel, Await Your Reply, is both a ghost story and a valentine. That combination isn’t as peculiar as it sounds. At the end of a book that makes spine-tingling use of shifting, elusive identities, Chaon takes time to applaud some of the authors whose great, spooky stories have haunted his own memories. His list includes not only the usual suspects (Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien, Shirley Jackson) but also relatively overlooked popular authors like Ira Levin and Thomas Tryon. Flash back to The Other, by Tryon, for a classic tale of scary twins.

Await Your Reply has scary twins too. But that device is just for starters. In a book that makes wittily exaggerated use of conventional thriller tricks, Chaon is not content to start his story with one reader-grabbing opener; he provides three. The first chapter presents Ryan, a boy whose father is assuring him that he, Ryan, is not going to bleed to death even though Ryan’s hand has just been severed. This is quickly followed by a second piquant setup: “A few days after Lucy graduated from high school, she and George Orson left town in the middle of the night.”

Third up: A twin, Miles Cheshire, en route to find his brother, Hayden, near the Arctic circle. “Welcome to Tsiigehtchic!” says a none-too-welcoming local sign.

Chaon is in no hurry to connect these dots and explain what the three opening scenes have to do with one another. But he is not stalling; he’s not generating arbitrary suspense by withholding information, though thriller writers routinely resort to that lazy method. The pieces of this plot will all fall into place eventually, and there will be shock value as their mysteries unravel. But the real pleasure in reading Chaon is less in finding out where he’s headed than in savoring what he accomplishes along the way.

Suffice it to say that nobody in Await Your Reply is exactly who he or she first appears to be. And nobody is a complete entity, either; perhaps the single most horrific plot motif here is that in a world where identities can be created, hacked into, shed or altered with apparent ease, the full and true self is an endangered species. This book takes its title from a computer spam message that uses Await Your Reply to lure unwitting fraud victims with the promise of a financial windfall from Ivory Coast. The mordant joke here is that the message’s recipient is even more unscrupulous than its sender.

The recipient is Jay Kozelek, the father of teenage Ryan, even though Jay has only lately told Ryan that he is his father and not his uncle. “You trust me, don’t you?” Ryan asks Jay, setting up the kind of ambiguous exchange in which Chaon so evidently delights. “Sure I do,” Jay answers. “You’re my son, right?” Sure.

Jay and Ryan play out an homage of sorts to Patricia Highsmith’s Mr Ripley, busily swindling and creating the fake personae that are clones or avatars of the video-game-savvy Jay. Citing a poem about the road not traveled by that guy “David Frost,” Jay wonders why the poem’s narrator had to make a choice. “How come you can’t travel both?” Jay asks about the divergent roads. “That seemed really unfair to me.”

Meanwhile, the runaway Lucy seems to be on more solid ground. She has escaped a small Ohio town with George Orson, her Maserati-driving history teacher, who never quite seemed to be the person he claimed to be. George would tell his students that American history was full of lies, “and he paused over the word ‘lies’ as if he liked the taste of it.”

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