By Dan Chaon
Ballantine. 254 pp. $25
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Reviewed by Kevin Grauke
There are not many fiction writers who can do what Dan Chaon can do.
Many write both short stories and novels (by choice if not by necessity, since novels are in much greater demand, by both publishers and readers, than collections of stories). Because the forms are not so much siblings as they are distant cousins, few write both equally well. If Chaon wrote only novels or only short stories, he would still be a literary force. Fortunately for us, however, he writes both, and he's the equivalent of a baseball player who swings with power from both sides of the plate.
His novels - 2004's You Remind Me of Me and 2009's Await Your Reply - are the sort that you push onto your friends, telling them to start reading immediately. Both are consummately crafted at the sentence level, expertly plotted from first page to last, utterly compelling in their exploration of the damaged inner lives of their characters.
However, as great as these novels are, his two most recent short-story collections - 2001's Among the Missing, which was a National Book Award finalist, and now, his brand-new collection, Stay Awake - might be even better.
Like the stories of Among the Missing, the 12 stories of Stay Awake take us deep into the lives of characters who do their best to seem normal and happy enough to the world around them, although these folk are anything but healthy and well-adjusted. Peering through the fissures in their facades, we see them for the haunted souls they truly are. And what haunts them - figuratively and psychically, but sometimes maybe even literally, as well - is the troubled past and its influence on the present, thanks to the impossibility of escaping memory's grasp.
Not that they don't make every effort to repress what lies in the past as they try to survive the present. For some, the past is a family abandoned or parents who killed themselves; for others, it's a mother who drowned two of her seven children, or a father who, for some inexplicable reason, failed to follow through with his plans to exterminate his entire family.
But repression, as they discover, is an inadequate defense mechanism because, to quote Shakespeare, the "truth will out" - always, as the narrator of "I Wake Up" is beginning to notice when his long-lost sister reenters his life: "I had never been a very good rememberer. That was one of the downsides of being in contact with Cassie. It reminded me of things I didn't like about my own mind, the problems with the ways in which it worked and didn't work."
For those characters fortunate enough not to be traumatized by the distant past, the very recent past offers trauma enough: the death of a newborn son, the death of a wife in a car accident, the apparent paralysis of a married girlfriend, the birth of twins joined at the head. In these stories, what becomes unavoidably apparent, to both the protagonists and to us, is the thread-thin line between normalcy and catastrophe, contentedness and despair. "Already, one man you might have been is dead, and you should take some time to clear his cobwebbed bones from your mind," notes the second-person narrator of "Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow," having just realized that the role of loving family man that he'd foreseen for himself has ended before it even began.
But it won't be that easy; it's never that easy. The recent past may become the distant past eventually, but that's cold comfort when it returns, as it inevitably does, to confuse and unsettle the always-transient calm.
While we watch his characters teeter on the threshold that divides past from present, reality from fantasy, waking from sleeping, and avoidance from acceptance, Dan Chaon not only offers us uncompromising portraits of often unenviable people in unenviable circumstances, he also disconcerts us, in the best sense of the word. As we eavesdrop on the most private and painful of thoughts as they bubble unbidden to the surface of consciousness, he compels us to acknowledge those unpleasant portions of our own histories that we seek to keep hidden, not only from others, but also from ourselves.
If these truths trouble our dreams, we can choose to stay awake, as does the protagonist of "The Bees," but we may discover, as he does, that all those things not quite remembered begin "circling and alighting, vibrating their cellophane wings" against the inside of our foreheads, "like a windowpane they were tapping against."