Dan Chaon’s latest novel, Await Your Reply, starts in the middle of a particularly bloody scene: A severed hand on a bed of ice in a Styrofoam cooler is being rushed, along with its owner, to a hospital in Michigan. Chaon offers no further information; the details—teeth chattering, calluses on the fingertips of the hand, “the car pursuing its pool of headlight”—give the action a visceral edge rather than clarify the cause. The events leading up to this situation go unexplained for much of the book. Such is the pattern of this novel: Motivating reasons remain obscure, effects are painfully present.
Made up of three distinct story lines, Await Your Reply shifts between the past and the present, between locations near and far. Teenage orphan Lucy runs away with her high school history teacher after she fails to get into an Ivy League college. Twenty-something Ryan disappears from his college and moves in with a man he believes to be his biological father. Compelled by a cryptic letter, thirty-something Miles sets off for the Arctic Circle, reviving the search for his dangerous and elusive twin brother. Despite this multidirectional movement, Chaon keeps the stories distinct, only occasionally hinting at their intersection, so that the plot maintains a pleasing mystery throughout the bulk of the novel.
With a cliffhanger punctuating the close of nearly every chapter, Await Your Reply has the pacing of a thriller. But it is far more elegant, intelligent, and philosophical than the standard fare of that genre. Chaon situates his characters in beautiful, desolate settings—an abandoned motel designed to look like a lighthouse and situated next to a desiccated reservoir, dilapidated mobile homes at the edge of the Canadian Arctic archipelago—and deftly navigates the paradoxes that shape the plot: technology that builds intimate connections between faraway individuals at the same time that it veils basic elements of identity, the congenital temperamental differences between identical twins, the ease with which modern mechanisms intended to define an individual (a driver’s license, a Social Security number) are manipulated and abused.
Chaon’s eerie descriptions, his precise pacing, and the pervasive sense of uncertainty propel the novel along, but at the very end, when an acceleration or a dramatic revelation might seem appropriate, the novel merely continues in its mode of carefully constructed restraint. The story lines do finally converge, but in doing so, they leave almost as many questions unanswered as elucidated. Throughout the novel, the characters are intensely sympathetic, but in the closing pages, it’s almost too easy to understand their predicaments. Readers may feel like one of Chaon’s characters at a low ebb—deposited in an isolated environment, uncertain of what has happened and where they’re going and with only a vague and dreamlike sense of where they’ve been.
ChloŽ Schama is a writer living in Washington D.C. Her first book, Wild Romance, will be published next March.