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Onyx reviews: Stay
Awake by Dan Chaon
Readers won't find many happy people in the pages of Dan Chaon's latest short
story collection. The characters have all suffered losses: parents,
spouses, or have gone through break ups and divorces. Some have even lost body
parts. Some seem to be on the verge of losing their grip on sanity. Even the
towns they live in seem to be dying. These losses
aren't always the focus of the stories, but they are part of the fabric of what
makes the characters who they are during the events each tale recounts. The
stories are not connected, although there are some crossover character names (Zach
and Zachary, Christopher and Critter), and events, such as men who fall from
ladders and lose fingers and recurring power outages.
necessary to take into consideration the fact that Chaon lost his wife to cancer
in 2008, as did the lonely protagonist of "Take This Brother, May it Serve
You Well"? That may an indicator of why the author chose to grapple with
death and loss in its varied forms. Does he wander dark parking lots, suddenly
uncertain where he is, unable to find his car? Would he take the drink offered
by the man Deagle meets in the fortune teller's office? Does he awake to the
sound of his own screams?
Many of the characters are either alone or feel alone in the company of others.
They are damaged and untethered
They are isolated, sometimes willfully, sometimes through circumstances beyond
their control. If they haven't lost someone, they themselves are lost.
Characters also suffer from unreliable or missing memories. A brain-damaged man has lost all recollection
of his life before his accident. He can
look at photographs and recreate those memories, for a while at least, but they
are otherwise lost. Ironically, he's more content than his previous self. Robert, the narrator of "I Wake Up," also
considers himself a poor rememberer. His mother went to prison when he was five
after killing his two younger siblings. He has five older brothers and sisters
with whom he's lost contact as he drifted from one foster home to another until
settling in with a couple as the replacement for their son, who died in a diving
accident. His eldest sister reaches out to him twenty years later, telling him
stories about his other siblings, but he isn't sure he can believe anything she
says and the promised photographs she sends never arrive.
There are hints of mental illness. Is Critter—the
single father in "To Psychic Underworld" who's wife died in a car
accident and who starts seeing messages
everywhere, written on dollar bills, in magazines at the doctor's office, on napkins left behind at fast food
restaurants, even in the mud—becoming schizophrenic? He
questions his sanity. When his wife died, the papers she was reading were
scattered in the wind. Did she communicate with others, and is the universe
somehow responding? If so, what is it trying to tell him?
("Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted") is undergoing a breakdown of a
different kind. At twenty-five, he's retreating from the world. His hometown is
slowly dying. He rarely speaks to people and he's walling himself up inside the
house where he grew up and where his parents committed suicide. They left a note
that apologized and told him not to go upstairs but rather to call the police.
Beyond his parents, an unusally large number of his high school classmates have
died from accident and disease. Even Patrick Lane, whose name he sees scrawled
on the men's room wall at work, committed suicide. He's supposed to be preparing
the house for sale, but the process overwhelms him. When he notices writing on
his arm—words, phrases, complete sentences—he wonders if he's
suffering a flashback from a juvenile experiment with psychedelic mushrooms?
Even time isn't working properly for him any more.
Crime plays a part in
several of the stories. In "St. Dismas," Pierce, the protagonist
kidnaps his former girlfriend's young son. He considers it a rescue, since the
woman is a drug addict who has been turning into a horrible monster
as her addiction worsens, but his plan is ill conceived. They wander America,
lying and stealing, until they end up at Pierce's family home in a dried up
prairie town in Nebraska, where Pierce tries to come up with an exit strategy
after the boy starts calling him Dad.
And what of Gene's first family in
"The Bees," the one he abandoned when he was younger and a raging
alcoholic? The son he has with his new wife is suffering from nightmares that
cause him to awake screaming, but the screams remind Gene of something else. Is
there something about that long-ago night that's been lost in an alcoholic haze?
Even contemplated crimes have a profound effect on people. A man was on the
verge of killing his children because he felt trapped in a life he no longer wanted. This creates a schism for the three girls, who later
in life feel like they died and are just now remembering it. There are two
versions of their life stories, one in which they didn't wake up and the rest of
their lives was just a long dream. The father, too, was the son of a suicidal parent who
was a convicted drug felon.
In the title story, a young couple have a deformed
child. Their baby girl should have been twins, but the second fetus was partly
absorbed into Rosalie. All that remains is a perfectly formed and beautiful head
that is attached to Rosalie's at the crown. The doctors reassure Zach and Amber
that the parasitic head is blind and has no thoughts or feelings. They parents,
though, wonder if this is punishment for insisting on having their own child—after
years of fertility issues—rather than adopting. Zach believes the drive to
procreate is caused by the need to have a piece of oneself that will continue on
after death. Shortly after Rosalie is born—and before the delicate surgery
that will remove the parasitic head—Zach falls asleep driving home from
work and ends up in the same hospital, in traction, seriously injured. The world
goes on around him, and he is forced to rely on reports from his wife and the
medical staff. Chaon pulls off a delicate trick on readers, though.
of another baby in "Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow" causes a
crossroads for the teenage protagonist. His girlfriend's unexpected pregnancy
was about to send his life in a new trajectory in which he did the responsible
thing, got married, found a job and raised a family. All of a sudden, his whole
life is ahead of him again, but what will he do with it? He
"selfishly" disappears during the wake, preventing people from
expressing their condolences. He's still in love with Meg, but the crisis has
caused a rift. She can't come to terms with the insignificance of the aftermath
of her child's death. She feels like the world should be collapsing around her,
but it isn't. He's still in love with Meg, but wonders if their future might
have turned into a disaster, like that of his parents.
A sense of trapped
obligation also pervades "Shepherdess," in which the woman the
protagonist is seeing falls out of a tree during their fifth date. Until that
incident, he believes she's about to break up with him. He ends up waiting for
hours at the hospital, unsure how long he is expected to hang around. He's
trying to be a good guy, but he's out of his element. Interwoven with this
awkward scenario is his recollection of his mother's recent death. By the end of
the story, he feels that there are more and more things going on
in his life that he will never be able to explain to anyone else.
One of the quirkiest stories, "Long
Delayed, Always Expected," is about a divorced 44-year old woman who is
gloomy about her future. Her daughter recently left for college and she's
suffering empty nest syndrome and contemplating the things she's done for the
last time in life, like raising a child. Her ex-husband was brain-damaged in an
accident caused by a drunk driver five years after the divorce and he's living
in a group home. He's nothing like the man he used to be—easier going and
more relaxed. She decides to invite him over for dinner and embarks on a new
sexual relationship with him. Is she falling in love
with him again or is he a surrogate for their daughter?
The protagonists of "Slowly
We Open Our Eyes" and "Take
This Brother, May it Serve You Well" are also down on their luck.
O'Sullivan, the first in his family to go to graduate university, has no
marketable skills, has no job and is broke. He and his brother, a high school
dropout who earns great money driving trucks filled with medical waste, are on
their way back home for their grandmother's funeral when they have a fateful
encounter with a deer and a motorcyclist. Deagle is in Portland on a business
trip. He lost his wife to cancer and his children now live with his sister until
he can get his act together. Since taking a poetry class, he has been jotting
observations in a notebook, but they're morbid and cynical, befitting a man who
had a serious heart attack at the age of 39. After hanging out in the hotel bar
for too long, he goes on an ill-advised walk in the rain and gets lost. Whatever
he's looking for, he's in the wrong neighborhood, a woman tells him. But perhaps
not. Perhaps the dodgy psychic and her threatening male companion can provide
him exactly what he's seeking.
These aren't traditional horror stories by any stretch of the imagination.
There's nary a vampire or a werewolf, and the only ghosts are the ghosts of
unfulfilled possibilities. Horror is an emotion, though, and it pervades each of
the twelve tales. The book should probably be taken in small sips rather than
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