By Dan Chaon
I’m afraid to say that this book is about identity, because that sounds like a book I wouldn’t want to read. That book sounds like it takes place in Findyourself, Alaska and involves adultery. I am also afraid to say that this book is about identity theft, because that sounds like a book written by Robert Ludlum that you can only buy as a pocket paperback.
While I’m at it, I could tell you that all the characters are, at best, barely likeable, and until the final third of the book very little happens to them. But I will also tell you, as often as I can, that Dan Chaon is a genius. A phenomenally gifted American writer, whose fiction routinely turns prosaic, slightly depressing subjects into stories that you cannot stop reading, and cannot stop talking about once you’ve finished. He is a genius at writing the way two people exist when they’re in a room together, the lengths we’ll go to to think highly of ourselves, and the desperate, blind hope we put in the possibility of another person loving us.
In Await Your Reply he writes about identity – and identity theft – the way many novelists write about marriage or aging – as an abstract that takes form and wields enormous influence. Identity can be liberating or tyrannical, elusive or intractable. For most of us, the questions of identity – Who am I? Am I my thoughts or my actions? Am I pretending? – are ones we ask ourselves casually, hypothetically, recreationally even, after a moving film or an important birthday. For the characters in Await Your Reply, these questions are of critical importance, an importance so paralyzing that much of the action is stalled for scores of pages until these people can come to some tenuous grasp of themselves, who they have been and will be. They are not to be envied, in their existential crises, but they are fascinating.
The book follows three storylines. Each centers on a person in the throes of an identity crisis, and the person they are leaning on to help them through it.
|Miles is a middle-aged, overweight, college drop-out whose life has never gathered any momentum because he routinely quits his job to go searching for his long-lost twin brother Hayden. When they were growing up in Cleveland, Hayden was the bright, imaginative twin and Miles was the nice, dependable twin who followed along. They created fantasy worlds and languages and secret games. Guidance counsellors began to say that Hayden was a genius. Then they said he was insane. He started to talk like he believed in all the worlds and stories they’d created, and he started to lie pathologically. Then a hypnotist looked into his eyes and said he had “an enormous harvest of past lives,” and that was it. He became obsessed with these past lives, believing he had been dozens of people. It was not long before he was committed to a mental institution, and not longer after that before he escaped.||
But Miles doesn’t know what to believe. He has a sneaking suspicion that Hayden actually was a genius, and that his whole life has been just another fantasy world he created. For twenty years Hayden has been moving all over the country living under different aliases, and periodically calling Miles on the phone to, essentially, torture him. Because no matter how many times he swears he won’t do it again, whenever Miles hears from Hayden he packs his bags and goes to look for him. To save him. To get their life back.
Lucy is an 18-year-old who left town with her high school history teacher right after graduation. She had never been satisfied with life in small town Ohio, as she considered herself smarter than her classmates, her sister, and her parents. She knew she was destined for something bigger and more significant, and when George Orson kept her after class and told her the same thing, forget it. Her parents died in a car accident at the beginning of her senior year and, having only applied to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, she didn’t get into college. So when George Orson told her they should go away together, and that he was secretly very, very rich (identity theft, I might as well tell you), she almost literally had no choice. He was her chance at the erudite, sophisticated life she had always thought she deserved.
Ryan dropped out of college during his sophomore year when he found out his parents were not his real parents. His real father, Jay, had gotten a girl pregnant in high school, and when Ryan was born, Jay’s sister adopted him and raised him as her son. So his parents are actually his aunt and uncle, his Uncle Jay is actually his father. He finds out because Jay calls him one night and simply tells him so. Ryan disappears from his life and goes to live with Jay in a cabin in the woods in rural Michigan, where they steal identities on the internet. Ryan has abandoned his old life – his fake (?) parents and the future they’d built for him – and now has a different identity every few days. Part of his job in the identity fraud business he runs with Jay is to travel around, travelling and making purchases as different people. His avatars, he calls them. He has a disguise for each one.
To put it simply: Miles is obsessed with the past, Lucy is obsessed with the future, Ryan no longer has either. They are all untethered – “sundered,” as Chaon is fond of putting it – from their previous self-image. In the first third of the novel, they are all looking forward, working to put themselves back together, or to put a new self together. They are grasping. We meet each of them in the car.
“Yes. She liked that idea: You invent yourself.”
Lucy and George are driving away from Ohio, to make a new life. Lucy is giddy with the possibilities of her glamorous existence, causing her to buy bright red lipstick and use the phrase “to make a new life.” George Orson has a Maserati and speaks several languages and went to Yale, and has promised to take her somewhere exotic and give her a cosmopolitan life. Where he takes her, actually, is Nebraska, to an abandoned hotel on the shore of a dried up reservoir, “just until they got things figured out.”
Chaon is not at his best describing the inner workings of an 18-year-old girl, but that can be forgiven. The moment when she muses about changing her name to Vienna, London, or Alexandria feels pretty weird, but while that could be attributed to Chaon’s having never been a teenage girl, it could also be because Lucy is not a particularly astute teenage girl. Part of the pathos that creeps into her story from the beginning is the fact that she genuinely thinks what she’s doing is a good idea. She has run away from home, with no idea where she’s going, with a high school teacher she’s known for a year. She has done this because he told her she could be somebody else, and she wants to invent that person.
“…It was time, Miles thought, to let go. To move on. …He was going to live his own life.”
But he doesn’t. Miles gets a letter from Hayden, and he drives from Cleveland through literally all of Canada to a town in the Northern Territories, on the edge of the Arctic Circle. Miles has done this several times, driving to Los Angeles, North Dakota, Missouri, and always gets there after Hayden has left. He realizes, over the years, that Hayden is an extremely accomplished con artist, assuming a different identity in each new place, and possibly involved in major bank fraud.
If everyone else in the novel is going through an identity crisis, Hayden is their counterpoint. He doesn’t believe in his identity, or rather, he believes in all of them. He calls it “the ruin lifestyle.” He picks up a new identity and lives recklessly and passionately in that life until he has to leave, which is usually not long. The questions from his childhood – genius or schizophrenic? game or evil plan? – are not ones Chaon chooses to answer. Hayden is the embodiment of the novel’s questions, and the answers are as slippery as Hayden himself, whom Miles continues to follow around the country in a rented car, hoping – impossibly, endearingly – to put his family back together.
“My whole life is a lie, he thought, which he knew was melodramatic, adolescent.”
|Ryan is neither melodramatic nor adolescent. He finds out his parents aren’t his parents, he drops out of college to work with his real dad in an Internet fraud racket, and then he very easily gets over it. Any angst or regret he may feel manifests itself as mild disbelief; every once in a while he has a moment where he thinks, “Wait a minute, wasn’t I in college a year ago?” For the most part, though, he seems rather unbothered by the fact that he abandoned a whole life. And he enjoys traveling under assumed identities – he makes up back stories and personalities for all of them, and has personal favorites.
Then he is declared dead. He reads his own obituary and the tributes his friends write on their blogs, and what started out as reckless – albeit extremely reckless – behavior becomes a concrete fact. “The life he had been leading up until now was actually over.” While Lucy yearns to get a new life, and Miles grasps to reclaim his old one, Ryan faces the absolute necessity of starting over. His past has legally been wiped away, and with it any plans he had for the future. He is nobody in no man’s land.
Photo by Lonnie Timmons
In the middle of the book, everybody is in no man’s land, emotionally and geographically. Miles is in northern Canada looking for clues. Lucy is in an abandoned house waiting for George to take her somewhere else. Ryan is in a cabin in Michigan, acting as someone different every day.
Poor Lucy. She sits in the house week after week watching My Fair Lady (well played, Chaon) while George sequesters himself in the study moving money around on his laptop. She begins to suspect that things aren’t going to turn out the way she hoped, but she can’t go back. Her image of herself as someone with great things on the horizon is starting to fray:
Her future was like a city she had never visited. A city on the other side of the country, and she was driving down the road, with all her possessions packed up in the backseat of the car, and the route was clearly marked on her map, and then she stopped at a rest area and saw that the place she was headed to wasn’t there any longer. The town she was driving to had vanished – perhaps had never been there – and if she stopped to ask the way, the gas station attendant would look at her blankly. He wouldn’t even know what she was talking about.
“I’m sorry, miss,” he’d say gently. “I think you must be mistaken. I never heard of that place.”
A sense of sundering.
In one life, there was a city you were on your way to. In another, it was just a place you’d invented.
She begins to realize that the existence of Lucy Lattimore in Ohio could disappear. She hasn’t brought along her social security card, birth certificate, a driver’s license, “all the flotsam that proved that you were officially a person,” as Ryan puts it. If she never holds a job, pays any tax, gets a speeding ticket, will her identity just go away?
Or does Lucy still exist because George knows her? Because he saw “the real her,” and “he was, after all, possibly the only person left in the world who truly loved her”? She abandoned the paper trail of her life because this, to her, was more tangible. It is the same for Miles, who goes searching after Hayden time after time, borne back ceaselessly into the past, not to save Hayden, but to save himself:
Was it enough to say that they were brothers – that Hayden was the last person alive in the world who shared the same memories, the last person who could remember how happy they were at one point, the last person who knew that things could have been different? Was it enough to say that Hayden was a conduit through which he could pass back in time, the last thread that connected him to what he still thought of as his “real” life?
The parents in Await Your Reply are uniformly awful. They tromp through the characters’ childhoods like everybody’s least favorite middle school teacher. And they’re all dead – except for Ryan’s parents, and technically he’s dead. Nobody liked their childhood, or misses their dead parents except – inevitably – Miles, who misses his dad. But Lucy and Ryan, even George, Jay, and Hayden, are not particularly attached to the identities assigned to them through birth. And now none of them are secure, existentially or otherwise, in their current identities. Lucy, after all, is the only one who even uses her real name all the time. They exist only in each other’s eyes. They exist only insomuch as another person knows what they do every day, and what they look like. “People like to contextualize themselves,” George says, and Chaon’s characters are always listing the things in their bedrooms, rattling off their high school grades, and staring at themselves in mirrors:
But imagine yourself in pieces.
Imagine all the people who have known you for only a year or a month or a single encounter, imagine those people in a room together trying to assemble a portrait of you, the way an archaeologist puts together the fragments of a ruined facade, or the bones of a caveman. Do you remember the fable of the seven blind men and the elephant?
It’s not that easy, after all, to know what you’re made up of.
Who are we? That is actually the novel’s question. If you completely reinvent yourself, are you the same person? If you fall in the woods and your twin brother isn’t there to hear it, do you actually exist? All the characters in Await Your Reply are on a quest to find themselves, in some ways to prove themselves. Some are more seasoned than others at shedding and swapping identities, some are still grappling with it. But by the final third of the novel, as the three stories begin to overlap (what novelist could resist, after all?) Lucy, Miles, and Ryan all have to decide who they are, which identity they’ll choose. That is, after all, the great irony of this book, so full of personal quests and inner searching. You can’t find yourself. There’s nothing to find. All you’ll come across is stuff you’ve accumulated, and if you want, you can throw it all away.
Janet Potter has worked in bookstores in Boston, Dublin, Greece, and Chicago. If you ever meet her, she will try to make you read Cloud Atlas.