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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.

A 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. 

Then 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 misplaced.

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 by 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 of mystery. 

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 will 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 close scrutiny.

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