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Onyx reviews: Await
Your Reply by Dan Chaon
What's in a name? Every character in Await Your Reply has one, of
course. By the end of the novel, though, most of the names will seem as
ephemeral as the wind.
The book consists of three strands. These are typically
referred to as parallel threads, but that designation indicates a specific relationship. In this
novel, the stories seem to be
completely unrelated, except for a common theme: the disposable nature of
identity. Characters in this book often
take other people's identities and willingly give up their own. The book's title
comes from the closing line of an e-mail message modeled after the famous Nigerian scam used by identity
thieves to induce people to divulge vital information.
In the first
storyline, Miles Cheshire is in the Canadian territories near the Arctic
Circle, searching for his twin brother Hayden, who has been missing for a decade.
Missing is, perhaps, too strong a word—Hayden, who is mentally unstable,
has been at large and has kept in touch with his brother. Miles has been
following Hayden's trail all over the continent, always arriving just after his
brother moved on to his next location,
his next identity. Hayden has been living under a series of false names, many of
them derived from their youth.
However, the exact nature of their youth is
something of an open question. Hayden developed full blown paranoid
schizophrenia as an adolescent. The precursor to his mental illness was an
overly vivid imagination and a tendency to invent details or recall them from a skewed
perspective. He regularly calls Miles late at night and reminisces about events that never happened, becoming agitated and irate when Miles tries to set
the record straight. Since Miles is a loner and his parents are dead, he has
only his own memory to rely on, and his life has become a battle to fight for
the childhood he remembers without having Hayden's fictional version imprinted on top of
it. Their last name "Cheshire"—as in the cat that grinned so wide that
it vanished—is a significant cue to Chaon's thesis, as is the fact that Miles and Hayden's father was a magician and a hypnotist, even
though he never performed for the family.
woman Miles encounters in the Arctic wonders what sort of person could
voluntarily throw away parts of their lives to
reinvent themselves. That strikes close to home: Miles has
subjugated his own identity to his search for his missing brother.
Hayden claims that he was hypnotized as a child and, through this process,
gained access to numerous past lives. He now regularly encounters people on
the street who are reincarnations of people he knew in these past lives.
there's the story of a young
man named Ryan who has been frittering away his time at Northwestern University,
blowing his student loan on parties and drugs instead of tuition, and
neglecting his studies. The day of reckoning with his parents is coming, but the confrontation
is deflected when he receives a call from the man he's
always known as Uncle Jay. Jay says that he is Ryan's real father—that his
birth mother gave him up to Jay's sister before killing herself. This causes a
crisis of identity for Ryan. Everything he believed about himself is based on a
lie. He drops out of school to visit his birth father without telling anyone.
Another student claims Ryan committed suicide so he is declared dead, which suits Ryan
fine since he's no longer sure that the person he was supposed to be ever really
existed. He has been given a chance to start a new life.
Jay and Ryan
spend their time stealing identities. Ryan travels the
country to create detailed histories for their artificial constructs, depositing and
withdrawing money, renting cars, checking into hotels, making charges to their credit
cards to create paper trails
that make the fake names seem real. Ryan doesn't know the ultimate
purpose behind all this hocus pocus. He trusts that Jay knows what he's doing.
The opening scene, where Ryan's severed hand is in an ice chest, hints that his trust might be
Jay thinks that
Frost was wrong in his poem about choosing the path less traveled. Why not
travel both? His mystifying scheme begins to draw unwanted attention. Ryan gets instant messages
in Russian, and, in the ultimate
irony, someone might have stolen Jay's identity. Their carefully constructed
alter egos are being deconstructed, popping out of existence one
The final strand in the novel focuses on Lucy Lattimore, an
orphaned high school graduate who has crept away from her small town
with George Orson, her former history teacher, who is fourteen years her senior.
He arrived in town from points unknown, driving a $70,000 car and exuding an aura
Even though there's technically nothing improper about a teacher dating a
former student who is now an adult, Orson thinks that the people in Pompey, Ohio
talk and that it's better for them if they make a new start. He takes her to his
hometown in Nebraska, which is now a ghost town. There once was an artificial
lake, but it has dried up, and so did the town. George moves them into the
former hotel (shades of Psycho) next to an artificial lighthouse. Lucy is naive and
easily manipulated, and is completely in George's thrall. He
has a plan that involves millions of dollars, but he is stingy with
details and Lucy doesn't have much choice but go along. It's not like she has
anywhere else to go, or anyone else to turn to.
In Nebraska, George Orson seems like a
different person to Lucy, as if he is an actor who, without an audience to
perform for, is slowly slipping out of his role. After he shaves off his beard,
he seems virtually unrecognizable to her. He tells Lucy that he has been dozens of different
people as an adult. On one
level he seems to be saying that one's character is never clearly defined and
that we go through different stages in our lives where we truly seem to be
different people. On another, though, he may be telling her that he has had
different identities. Wherein lies the truth? Lucy has no way of knowing. After George convinces Lucy that they need to adopt new identities for the next step
of the as-yet undefined scheme, Lucy wonders if abandoning her name means that
Lucy would never die because Lucy's death would never be recorded.
Though Chaon invokes the names of
several genre writers (Bradbury, Bloch,
King), the author whose work this book most resembles is Kate Atkinson, who also
revels in parallel plotlines of uncertain connection. Everything ties together
in an unpredictable fashion at the end, when the truth behind the dizzying array
of discarded identities is revealed. Chaon pinches his theme until it screams,
squeezing every drop out of it he can, but it's a timely subject that merits
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