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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, grandparents, children, 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.

Is it 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 from humanity. 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?

Brandon ("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.

The death 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 large gulps.

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