DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.
Dan Chaon's novel "Among the Missing," was a finalist for the National Book Award. Book critic Maureen Corrigan can't decide whether his latest novel, "Await Your Reply," should be given an award or a lie detector test.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Dan Chaon's latest novel, "Await Your Reply," came out at the end of August — traditionally a stagnant period in the publishing calendar and so a logical time to feature this work of literary fiction by a writer who has his devoted followers, but by no means is a best-selling big name. But, sales considerations aside, autumn, with its mists and early night falls, would've been a more seasonally appropriate choice for this elegantly chilly novel about identity theft and existential confusion.
Chaon's emotionally austere, architectural plot demands that readers keep their wits about them. And, just to make sure his readers are alert, eyes front from the get-go, Chaon opens his novel on the scene of a teenaged boy named Ryan struggling to maintain consciousness in a car being driven by his panicked father. On the seat in between them is a Styrofoam ice cooler that contains Ryan's severed hand. It's a scene straight out of a Halloween movie, but the story behind it is even more mundanely disturbing.
Ryan's tale is one of three intertwined narratives that compose "Await Your Reply." All of them are bleak, and weird, and slyly compelling. Ryan, we learn, has been drawn into a career of credit card fraud by his father — a biological father he's only recently discovered after learning that he was adopted at birth.
The second, and to my mind, most intriguing story — focuses on another lost teenager, a girl named Lucy who's just graduated from high school and has left her Ohio town in the middle of the night with her former history teacher; a charismatic guy named George Orson. They hole up for weeks at a long-shuttered motel complex in Nebraska, that George claims was owned by his family. Think: the landscape of "Psycho," because that's what Chaon invites us readers to think.
Chaon also winks, throughout this heavily allusive novel, to the work of other cultured creepmeisters like Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. In the third tale of this unholy trinity, a man named Miles has been searching for a decade for his twin brother, Hayden, who suffers perhaps, from schizophrenia. Miles believes he's finally closing in on his demonic double at an abandoned scientific research station in the Arctic.
Throughout the novel, Chaon keeps transporting us to fantastic landscapes like that one. Some are all too real — like Las Vegas; others could be. Near that deserted motel where Lucy and George are hiding, for instance, is a sprawling, dried-up reservoir which was originally created by flooding a town — Nebraska's own version of Atlantis. It seems that neither places, nor stories, nor human identities are stable in this spinning nebula of a novel.
As you might expect with a writer who toys so obsessively with the idea of the self as free-floating, rather than fixed, old-fashioned character development is not a major concern here. Indeed, in the course of "Await Your Reply," a reader learns the hard way not to get attached to any of these characters, since, to varying degrees, they show themselves to be not quite who we - or sometimes they - first think they are.
Intelligence is the draw here, demonstrated by the seemingly infinite number of rifts the novel can generate on the theme of multiple identities. In a reflective and unintentionally funny moment, Jay, Ryan's credit-card-thief dad, explains to him the more philosophical attractions of stealing other people's identities. I can't understand how people can settle for having just one life, Jay says. I remember we were in English class and we were talking about that poem by — that one guy, David Frost: two roads diverged in a yellow wood. You know this poem, right? I loved that poem. But I remember thinking to myself: Why? How come you can't travel both roads? That seemed really unfair to me.
Chaon cements his smarts in the novel's final pages with an ending that clicks shut like a coffin lid. You won't be saddened by that ending, but unless you're made of tougher stuff than I am, you will be startled.
BIANCULLI: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Await Your Reply" by Dan Chaon.
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BIANCULLI: That was the late jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie.
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