No Direction Home for Chaon

Dan Chaon discusses his latest novel, 'Await Your Reply'

Nov 10, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Dan Chaon’s new novel, Await Your Reply, is both an entertaining thrill ride and an incisive look at the way we live today, a world in which technology has fractured our existence and called into question the ever-mutating nature of identity. Existential dread permeates every page.

The serpentine, intertwining narrative centers on three people searching to transcend their unfulfilled existences: Miles Cheshire, a thirtysomething drifter forever on the lookout for his brilliant but shifty long-lost twin brother, Hayden; Lucy Lattimore, a recently orphaned 18-year-old who goes on the lam with her English teacher, George Orson; and Ryan Schuyler, a college drop-out who fakes his own death and falls into the netherworld of technologically aided identity theft.

Chaon — an English professor at Oberlin College and the author of multiple works of fiction, including the National Book Award finalist You Remind Me of You — recently spoke with CityBeat about everything from his Alfred Hitchcock fixation to the questionable existence of Sarah Palin.

CityBeat: Given the non-linear, kind of circling nature of the narrative and the various references to other literary touchstones like The Talented Mr. Ripley, reading the book is like being in a perpetual state of déj vu. There are also these overt references to Hitchcock’s Psycho and Vertigo.

Dan Chaon: I wish Hitchcock was still alive so he could direct the film version (of the book). But, of course, he’s been dead for 30 years (laughs). I’m a huge Hitchcock fan, and he is sort of all over in there.

CB: So did these references surface organically, or were you intent on getting them in there?

DC: I was definitely aware that they were in there. To the extent that I started writing this novel and I knew that I would be tipping my hat to all of these things, I had to decide whether it was going to be self-aware or not. I guess I decided that it was going to be part of the texture of the book, that it was going to all sort of be there, and that readers who knew the references would get them, and readers that didn’t know the references it wouldn’t necessarily bother them one way or the other. Although I figured, just because all of this all of this stuff is in the air, that there would be this sense of déj vu.

CB: Another reference that kept coming to mind was Bob Dylan in the sense that all of the characters are intent in reinventing themselves. Why are you so interested in exploring the idea of reinvention?

DC: There are personal roots to it. I was adopted as an infant, so I think I grew up with the idea that your life in some ways could have ended up in a lot of different ways, and in some ways who you are is somewhat random rather than fated.

I’ve also gone through a lot of big transformations in my life between growing up in small-town Nebraska to going to Northwestern as an undergrad and then ending up here in Ohio as a college professor. I feel like I’ve gone through a lot of my own permutations. That process is really interesting to me I think partially because my parents seemed like they really took on one life and really stuck with it, and it seems like people do that a little bit less these days. Or at least that’s my experience. We don’t necessarily stay in one place, in one job or with one set of friends and so on for the entirety of our life.

CB: The other big theme of the book is how technology has fracture reality to the point that we’re never sure what’s authentic and what isn’t. I mean, it’s crazy to me that Sarah Palin can post something on her Facebook page and immediately impact an election in upstate New York. I wouldn’t be surprised if her page is actually written by some conservative operative.

DC: Oh, I can’t imagine that she does her own Facebook page. I don’t even think that there is a real Sarah Palin. She’s just an avatar.

DAN CHAON reads from and discusses his fiction 7 p.m. Thursday in Tangeman University Center room 427 on UC’s campus. Get venue and event details here.