In Search For Answers, No Guaranteed 'Reply'
Dan Chaon's new novel, Await Your Reply, takes its title from the persistent spam that floods our in-boxes — those e-mails insisting that some foreign bank is holding millions of dollars for us to claim. It's not a story about phishing scams or electronic fraud; rather, it's about how identity and deception affect three people trying to remake their lives.
Chaon tells Weekend Edition's Liane Hansen that identity theft in contemporary America has long fascinated him, and it helped him figure out how to unite the three narratives of his story in unexpected ways.
"There's a lot more ways that you can slip out of yourself and into somebody else, if you care to," Chaon says. Even though Americans hold tight to "the idea of the singularity of the self," he says, at the same time, "it seems like the self is much looser than it used to be."
Those deceptions play out as three characters set out to reinvent themselves. There's Ryan Schuyler, a college dropout who goes to live with a father he never knew; Lucy Lattimore, who drives away after high school graduation with her boyfriend, who was her history teacher; and Miles Cheshire, who has been on a 10-year quest to find his twin brother, Hayden. They are solitary people by nature, Chaon says, some estranged from their families and "in some ways disconnected from the kinds of relationships that ground us in the world."
On the surface, twin brothers Miles and Hayden seem to have the strongest biological, if not emotional, bond. Chaon is intrigued by that connection between twins, "the sense of, 'here's somebody who has the exact same genetic makeup as me,' this person who you're connected to in this incredibly deep and complicated way, from pre-birth all the way through." For Miles and Hayden, the twin link turns out to be both blessing and curse.
Throughout the novel, the characters swerve from having little faith in the people around them, to being gullible and too trusting of others. That dichotomy, Chaon says, is at the heart of the book.
"How much trust is useful and how much trust is necessary to live in the world?" Chaon says. "It's necessary, to live in the world, to have some kind of trust that people are genuine. It would be a horrible way to live if you couldn't trust anyone."
Before Chaon crafted his three different narratives and figured out how to fit them together, he had been thinking about the "post-apocalyptic quality of certain landscapes," like one from his childhood: Lake McConaughy in Nebraska — where his family used to swim, boat and ski — was suffering from a drought that left just an expanse of dry sand.
A hotel on the edge of another dried-up lake in Nebraska was the first thing Chaon started writing about. In the book, the lake flooded out the neighboring village, creating an abandoned "drowned town."
"During the period when we were crazy about building reservoirs," Chaon says, "[in] a lot of these little valley villages, people got moved out and the water came in, and they left the houses."
If that sounds like the creepy, isolated Bates Motel from Psycho, Chaon confesses that his novel does reflect "a little bit of a Hitchcock obsession."
"While Lucy's staying at this abandoned motel, she finds a cache of videos, and one of the ones that she watches is Rebecca," Chaon says. "A Vertigo scene comes a little later in the book."
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