Friday, June 20, 2014

Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

Who are you? What defines your identity? What does your identity mean to you, or to those who suppose they know you?

I don't normally gravitate toward novels in which characters, either by identity theft or some other form of legerdemain, simply become someone else on page 157.  I also have limited tolerance for unreliable narrators who reveal halfway through the novel that I shouldn't believe some or all of what they're telling me.

On that basis, I should have loathed Await Your Reply. With three story lines slowly converging, inherently untrustworthy characters (fraudulent, schizophrenic, stoned, Russian or overly gullible), this novel had all the ingredients for a jumbled mess. Dan Chaon, though, strikes me as a deft puppeteer who manages to keep the strings untangled and to move his characters through the story well enough to keep the reader engaged and not hopelessly confused.

In one of the story lines, Miles has been searching for years for his brilliant and schizophrenic twin brother, Hayden, who has been teasing him with letters and emails that fuel a continual goose-chase across North America. When Miles arrives in a remote corner of Canada's northwest territories, he collides with Lydia, who is also trying to track Hayden down (although she knows him by a different name) -- Lydia's sister ran off with him years before, and no one has heard from her since.  As the two seekers sit in a bar, Lydia asks the question that's perhaps most central to the whole novel.
"But who just abandons their family in that way? What kind of person decides that they can throw everything away and -- reinvent themselves. As if you could just discard the parts of your life that you didn't want anymore. Sometimes I think, well, that's where we are now, as a society. That's just what people have become, these days. We don't value connection."
Ryan left college -- from which he was about to flunk out, anyway -- to meet his uncle, Jay, for the first time. Jay had just revealed a family secret:  He is Ryan's biological father. Ryan joins his new-found parent in the business of on-line identity fraud.  As he is travelling about the country and shifting money between misappropriated accounts, Ryan learns that the police have ruled his disappearance from the college a suicide, based upon someone thinking they saw him jumping into a frozen lake on campus. So, while taking steps to establish various aliases as part of their scam, Ryan tries to come to grips with the fact that his own identity has been declared dead, and not by his choice.
Sometimes Ryan imagined that he saw people from his past. Ever since his death, this had become a regular occurrence, these minor hallucinations, tricks of perception.
In the third story line, 17 year-old Lucy takes off from her mid-western home-town with school teacher George Orson, a charismatic, Ivy-league educated, Maserati-driving man who claims to find the teen-aged girl irresistably 'sui generis'.  Their relationship is odd -- while George Orson is clearly deceiving Lucy about his own background, he appears to genuinely care for her, and he treats her solicitously; Lucy seems alternately ordinary, savvy, gullible, and worldly. The two of them land in a house in Nebraska which George claims to have been his childhood home. They will stay there only a short while, he says, while he gets his "investments" in order before they move on to a stylish life in Europe. Italy, maybe. Their time in Nebraska, however, draws on longer than Lucy had expected, and George seems increasingly nervous. Finally, he announces that they will need to assume new identities and will be flying to Côte d'Ivoire so he can tie up a few loose ends of whatever dodgy business he's in.  As Lucy chafes uncomfortably in her new identity as the daughter of  "David Fremden", she begins to grasp that very little about her companion is as he'd claimed. She doesn't enjoy that sort of fluidity; he revels in it.
"That isn't really the house that you grew up in, is it?" she said, and her voice felt pressed flat as well. "The Lighthouse. All of the stuff you told me. That painting. That wasn't your grandmother."
"Hmm," he said, and he lifted his fingers from her thigh to gesture vaguely, an apologetic fluttering movement. "This is complicated," he said ruefully. "It always comes to this," he said. "Everyone gets so hung up on what's real and not real."
"Yeah," Lucy said. "People are funny that way."
 But George Orson only shook his head, as if she didn't get it. "This may sound unbelievable to you," he said, "but the truth is, a part of me truly did grow up there. There isn't just one version of the past, you know. Maybe that seems crazy, but eventually, after we've done this for a while, I think you'll see. We can be anybody we want. Do you realize that? And that's all it comes down to," he said. "I loved being George Orson. I put a lot of thought and energy into it, and it wasn't fake. I wasn't trying to fool you. I did it because I liked it. Because it made me happy."
In an almost believable display of earnest affection, George/David confesses his love for Lucy.
"And," he said, "I met you. I met you, and we fell in love, didn't we? Don't you understand, honey? You're the only person in the world I've ever been able to talk to. You're the only person in the world who loves me." 
Of course one wonders (and we can only assume that Lucy is doing likewise), with whom did she fall in love? With whom has she been talking?
And now she thought it again as she sat in her seat next to David Fremden on the airplane and tried to compose her thoughts. She missed George Orson. She would never talk to him again.
Lucy recalls a moment in George Orson's classroom in which he might have revealed something of himself in the guise of a logic lesson -- and her response to it.
'I never tell the truth', he told the class, was a version of the famous Epimenides paradox, and then he explained what a paradox was, and Lucy had written it down, thinking that it might be on a test, possibly she could get extra credit.
As she sits in a cafe in Côte d'Ivoire, however, her stylish new clothes and hairstyle chosen to match her latest assumed identity, Lucy considers that she may or may not stay with her former high school teacher and simultaneously realises that her own identity has become more mutable.
Perhaps he imagined she would remain the same person on the inside, no matter what name or persona she adopted. But that wasn't true, she thought. More and more, she was aware that Lucy Lattimore had left the earth. Already there was hardly anything left of her -- a few scraps of documents, birth certificate and social security card in her mother's drawer back in the old house, her high school transcript resident on some outdated computer, the memories of her sister, Patricia, the vague recollections of her classmates and teachers, already fading. The truth was, she had killed herself months ago. Now she was next to nothing: a nameless physical form that could be exchanged and exchanged and exchanged until nothing remained but molecules.
The three story lines converge completely only in the final chapter, which brings the book to a satisfying close, but the questions about identity -- our own, others' -- continue to linger and disturb. Really, who are you?  

1 comment:

  1. "I don't normally gravitate toward novels in which characters, either by identity theft or some other form of legerdemain, simply become someone else on page 157. I also have limited tolerance for unreliable narrators who reveal halfway through the novel that I shouldn't believe some or all of what they're telling me."
    Snort! Hilarious!
    I normally get frustrated with novels that begin with denouements. So someone died, and you tell me on the first page, and I have to get to page 280 before I find out how he or she died?!?!


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