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.”
George has spirited Lucy off to Nebraska, to the musty motel with a lighthouse motif that he describes as his mother’s home. George also says that the place was once situated lakeside, but all Lucy can see is dust where the lake used to be. There is a body of water in evidence, but it’s on the television set that conveniently plays Rebecca, with Mrs Danvers’ sinister sweet talk about the sea, in a handy Hitchcock-Du Maurier reference. No wonder Lucy’s a little nervous.
Then there’s the Arctic piece of this puzzle: Miles’ search for the lost Hayden, his troubled and alarming twin brother. When Hayden began to refer to “a hodgepodge of crypto-archaeology and numerology, holomorphy and brane cosmology, past-life regression and conspiracy-theory paranoia” as “my work,” Miles realized that he needed to be his brother’s keeper. But Hayden, who is even sneaker than the book’s other secretive characters, which is saying quite a lot, would much rather bait Miles than let Miles find him.
Chaon takes his sweet time — and if you’re lucky, he’ll take some of yours — in aligning the elements of his story so that clarity can begin to emerge. Like Kate Atkinson, who is not officially referenced here but might as well be, he’s particularly good at scrambling timelines in ways that conceal the truth, and in creating quick, occasional deja vu moments that show readers how certain events are connected.
So Chaon succeeds in both creating suspense and making it pay off, but Await Your Reply also does something even better. Like the finest of his storytelling heroes, Chaon manages to bridge the gap between literary and pulp fiction with a clever, insinuating book equally satisfying to fans of either genre. He does travel two roads, even though that guy David Frost said it wasn’t possible.
Chen Wang-shi (陳罔市) doesn’t know where to go if she is forced to move. The 78-year-old Chen is an active “sea woman” (海女) in Taiwan’s easternmost fishing village of Makang (馬崗) in New Taipei City’s Gongliao District (貢寮). When the waves are calm, she ventures out to forage for algae, oysters and other edible marine morsels. She lives alone in the village, as her children have moved to the cities for work, returning for weekends and festivals. “I cannot get used to living in Taipei, and I feel very uncomfortable if I don’t go out to the ocean to forage. I
Your body is floating in a warm, blue bath, neither sinking nor rising. Sunlight shimmers on the white sand below as a sea turtle drifts by. You feel your heart beating slowly and a profound sense of calm floods your mind. The figures floating at the surface seem distant, as if from a different world. Down here, there is just you, your mind, your body, and the water. In this calm, timeless moment, you have glimpsed infinity... you are freediving. The next time you find yourself on Siaoliouciou (小琉球), or on Green Island (綠島), or at any number of popular snorkeling
A widely criticized peer-reviewed study that measured the attractiveness of women with endometriosis has been retracted from the medical journal Fertility and Sterility. The study, “Attractiveness of women with rectovaginal endometriosis: a case-control study,” was first published in 2013 and has been defended by the authors and the journal in the intervening years despite heavy criticism from doctors, other researchers and people with endometriosis for its ethical concerns and dubious justifications, with one advocate calling the study “heartbreaking” and “disgusting.” The study’s conclusion was: “Women with rectovaginal endometriosis were judged to be more attractive than those in the two control groups.
Back in the 1950s, the lifeguards of Bondi Beach, Sydney, were not only charged with rescuing surfers and scanning for sharks. In their role as “beach inspectors” they were also responsible for ensuring that swimsuits conformed to New South Wales state regulations. At least 7.6cm of fabric was required over the thigh, no navels were to be exposed and shoulder straps had to be “sturdy.” One of the best-known beach inspectors was Aubrey Laidlaw, who had already laid down the law when the first bikini debuted on the beach in 1946. By the turn of the 1960s, the “Bikini Wars” were