Stay Awake: stories

I haven’t written anything in awhile.  I had planned to write about my new job, working in an office that is an interesting mix of Gen X and Millennials, with a few Boomers thrown for good (or not…) measure, but that hasn’t really happened, now has it.

Yesterday, though, on my way home from work, I had to stop at the bookstore — Barnes and Noble because there are no more Borders (B-o-o H-o-o) — to by a copy of “Stay Awake,” a new collection of short stories by Dan Chaon.

I have been waiting for this book to come out ever since I first learned of it’s existence, which was some time ago, although how long exactly I can’t quite recall. No matter. It is here.

I have been following Mr. Chaon since his very first collection of short stories, “Fitting Ends,” was published in 1995 by Triquarterly Books.

I  was still a graduated student in the MFA program at Western Michigan University, hoping to be a writer of short stories myself some day. I must have come across this book at John Rollins bookstore in Portage, MI, right up Westnedge from Kalamazoo, where WMU is located. That was a great independent bookstore. But I’m not sure it exists anymore. A google search does not turn it up. <sigh>

Anyhoo…. I recall being so taken by the stories in “Fitting Ends” that I wrote to the publisher in hopes of contacting the author, Mr. Chaon. This was before it was so easy to track someone down via the internet. To my surprise, the publisher passed on my letter to Dan and he eventually wrote to me. For a time we exchanged letters and emails, which was a fresh technology at the time. Eventually, though, the correspondences ended and life moved on.

I remember I was in the Borders on Woodward in Birmingham, I’m pretty sure, when, scanning the shelves for something to read, I came across Dan’s second collection of short stories, “Among the Missing.”

I remember sitting and reading it but ultimately not buying, perhaps because it was in hardcover and I was a new father and concerned about money and therefore didn’t feel right about dropping that kind of cash on a book (huh, if only my ex had felt the same sense of fiscal responsibility when it came to her hair or clothes). But later I did buy it in paperback.

A few years later, not long after I started my job at the Baldwin Public Library, one of the hot fiction books at the time was Dan Chaon’s first novel, “You Remind Me of Me.”

I spent my early lunch hours absorbed in this exceptional novel.

And of course I was super duper excited when, years later, still working at the library, I saw that Dan’s new novel, “Await You Reply,” was to be released. I counted down the days until the book was available. And immediately devoured it once it was. Of course, because I was the main copy cataloger at the library I was the first one to get my hot little hands on this novel. I had the first hold.

In fact, I believe I wrote a blog spot about it.  Ah, yes. Here it is. In it I identify Dan Chaon as a GenX write, a label he agreed with, you’ll see in his reply to my post. Of course, I was tickled that he’d managed to find my meager little post on my meager little blog.

I remember being exceptionally fascinated with the premise of this novel, at least in part because it was about characters who “just walk away” from their life. I made a comparison to the movie “Grosse Pointe Blank” because it deals with the same sort of thing with John Cusack’s character, who had walked away from his life abruptly one day. I can’t help wondering now if that interested me so much because at the time I secretly wanted to walk away from the life I was living — the oppressively soul-crushing marriage to a narcissist part NOT the being the father to the sweetest little girl in the world part.

Anyhoo…. this brings us back to Mr. Chaon’s new collection of short stories, “Stay Awake,” which, after reading the first two stories, I am sure is going to be exceptional from beginning to end, and which is going to be on of my favored collections for years to come, if not eternity. Well, my eternity anyway. I wonder. What will my daughter do with all my books when I am gone? Will she just donate them? Toss them? Keep perhaps a few? I should probably discuss this matter with her at some point. But probably I should concentrate on getting her through middle school and adolescence and all of that first, hug.

These stories, so far, are hard stories. Harsh. In fact, there almost seem like horror stories in a way. Very grim. Unsettling. But I love them for that very quality. Unlike the  reviewer on amazon who didn’t like the collection because people suffer in it, because it troubled him. This is an attitude, frankly, that I don’t get. What do people want? Short stories are not TV shows; they are not meant to make you feel good so that you’ll be in a receptive mood for whatever advertising comes between portions of the show. But…everyone is entitled to his/her opinion….for good or ill.

What really struck me about the first two stories in the collection  — The Bees and Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted — was how for each main character there is this confusion between what is really happening and what is just a trick of the mind or perhaps a dream or even something else, something unexplainable, and how these worlds, real and imagined and otherwise, mash and mix together. It’s the kind of thing that I like to experiment with in my own writing from time to time, particularly in a longer piece (novella length) that I have been working on.

Having said all that, perhaps far too much at this point, I am eager to get back to the book now.

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A strange confluence of death

I finished the Dan Chaon novel, Await Your Reply, yesterday. It was fucking amazing. I mean, it really blew my mind. In fact, my mind is still blown to some degree. And no, I am not high, although I kind of wished I was. Man, I could use a spliff right about now.

Anyhoo… At first, I hadn’t understood the reviews that made comparisons to Pynchon, or at least said that it was more Pynchonesque than Thomas Pynchon’s most recent novel, Inherent Vice, but as the story progressed and came together approaching the end the comparison and/or allusion made more and more sense. The culmination was and is haunting. I’ve no doubt that this book and it’s characters will stick with me for a long time to come. And I’m convinced that at some point I’ll be returning to it to read it again, something I rarely. The last book that effected me this strongly was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and that went on to win The Pulitzer, which I called even before it was being considered. I’m not saying Await Your Reply is a shoe in for the big P but I would not be surprised if it won something. It deserves at the ver least to be nominated.

After reading the last page, I went to the aknowledgements, which I liked to read. And I discovered that Dan Chaon’s wife of 20 years died after a long battle with ovarian cancer a few weeks after he finished the novel. As he did his final edits he had her scrawled notes on the manuscript to look at. That just hit me point blank in the heart. Umph!

What made it even more powerful was that early that day I’d learned that a cousin had died suddenly when she was struck by a falling tree on her farm. She was walking with her dogs and feeding ducks near a pond. There had been a storm the night before that apparently loosedn a tree and wel… Then I hear from my cousin that he is hurrying home because his father, my uncle, is most likely on his death bed.

It was just strange. And I’m still feeling the risidual effect of this confluence of events. Not that it means anything, or even has to. It just is what it is.

Await your reply

Not the signature, the novel by Dan Chaon, which I have been very eager to read.

Well, my hold finally came up on the one copy we have at library last week and I’ve been deeply immersed every since. I even put down DFW’s “Broom of the System” to take up Chaon’s novel. So he should be very grateful, like free autographed-copy grateful.

I blogged about this novel previously, in a post concerning this notion of people walking away from their lives. In part, Chaon’s novel explores this ….issue(?), which was partly why I’ve been so geeked to read it. The other part is that I’ve been a fan of Chaon’s work for some years now, ever since I discovered his first book, a short story collection entitled “Fitting Ends.”

Since in reply to my post, Mr. Chaon  himself confirmed, to  my surprise and delight, that he in fact does think of himself as a GenX writer, that is how I’m thinking about it. Although, truth be told, I probably would have even had he not considered himself a GenX writer. I mean, unless he threatened to beat me up after school or something.

Anyhoo… All the major characters in this story walk away from their lives, for one reason or another, which was intriguing enough for me, but by part two you realize that what this is leading to is a novel about identity theft, which would not have surprised me had a read the blurb on the back by Jonathan Franzen. Duh. But really, who reads blurbs. Okay. I admit it. I do.

In any case, I don’t think I’ve ever read a serious novel about identity theft. It’s a fascinating subject, and lends a kind of thriller quality to this novel, though at heart it a literary human drama.

The narrative drive is pitch perfect. And the level of invention is superb. Though it is a cliche, it is a page turner, because you’re so eager to find out what happens next, and not just in a plot point way, aka who done it, but in a character development way, aka why characters do what the do.

Not to go on too long (because that is so not like me [yeah whatever]), but an example of Chaon’s invention prowess is the part I am currently at. The character Lucy, a misfit orphaned teenager who has run away with her 32 year old Yale-educated high school History teacher, George. To of all places Nebraska and an old hotel and house that George has inherited.

What struck me first about the hotel/house, was that it made me think of the movie “Psycho.” But what ended up being even more interesting was that it was located next to what was once a vast reservoir, which long since been drained by farmers. The reservoir was originally created by flooding a kind of valley that once contained a small town. Now the town is re-exposed but of course as a kind of ghost town, a drowned ghost town of sorts. The idea, the image, is both eerie and miraculous. Love it! And there is still plenty more to read.

Escape….

A few years ago it dawned on me that everybody past a certain age — regardless of how they look on the outside — pretty much constantly dreams of being able to escape from their lives.

Thus opens Douglas Coupland’s novel, The Gum Thief, which I read on my recent trip to NYC (perhaps I’ll muster the enthusiasm to post more about the trip at a later date, though I wouldn’t hold your breath). It was the second time I’d read this book and of course I enjoyed it the first time around but for this time I was reading it with a different POV, because I was thinking about a previous post of mine, in which I rambled about this notion or impulse or whatever you want to call it to simply walk away from one’s life, about escaping who you are, where you are, what you are, even if you don’t know exactly why. The Gum Thief is steeped in this theme, a theme which I find very intriguing to say the least, especially within the context of Generation X. I keep wondering if the idea or impulse or even action of escaping one’s life is most particular to Generation X.

I suppose it’s something I’ve always thought about but is seemed to crystalize in a way when I learned of Dan Chaon’s new novel, Await Your Reply. I’ve been a fan of Chaon’s work since I discovered his first short story collection, Fitting Ends, when I was in grad school, getting my MFA in creative writing. I’ve yet to read this new novel but I eagerly look fwd to doing so because Chaon is an exceptional writer and because this novel explores that very idea of walking away from one’s life and because he is also a Generation X writer, a designation that he not only accepts but embraces (see his comment to my previous blog post).

In any case, ever since learning of Chaon’s new novel and what it is about, I’ve been noticing this theme in many places. Not only in Coupland’s novel but also in other GenX literature, such as the move Grosse Pointe Blank, which revolves around a character who upon graduating high school walked away from his life for 10 years before returning.

Admittedly I have more than just an academic interst in this sort of  subject matter.  When I left my home town of Warren, Michigan, to go away to college, I saw it as something of an escape. I recall tooling around my neighborhood the day before I left for school, filled with this romantic notion that I would never be coming back, not permanently anyway. Of course, I was a lot younger then. Like Martin Blank, I returned to my Michigan home, but 12 years later not 10, although I did attend my 10 year class reunion, but not as a hitman…unfortunately. Unlike Martin Blank, I di not then make a quick get away again, this time with love of my life. Still, the love of my life and I are planning are escape from Michigan, hopefully soon, but that’s another subject.

In any case, my fascintion with this idea continues. I will be on the look out for more examples and plan to detail them here as they arise. Anyone out there have any suggestion, in the form or books, movies, tv shows, etc, please pass them along.

Just walk away…

One of the other movies that I watched this past weekend was Grosse Pointe Blank, perhaps my favorite Gen X movie of all time. I know some people get a confused look on their face when I dubbed it a GenX movie, but I think I can give a plethora of reason to support this claim. I’m not going to right now, but trust me, the movie drips with Xer ethos, and not just because it stars John Cusack, who is about as GenX as they come.

Anyhoo… I was watching it again tonight. And I started thinking about this idea of walking away from one’s life, just up and going, disappearing without a word, which is the main character, Martin Blank did ten years previous to the current action of the movie. I’m wondering if there is something particularly Generation X about this notion or impulse or even the thought of it?

A more recent novel by Dan Chaon entitled Await Your Reply, explores this very idea. Check the amazon description of the novel:

Longing to get on with his life, Miles Cheshire nevertheless can’t stop searching for his troubled twin brother, Hayden, who has been missing for ten years. Hayden has covered his tracks skillfully, moving stealthily from place to place, managing along the way to hold down various jobs and seem, to the people he meets, entirely normal. But some version of the truth is always concealed.

A few days after graduating from high school, Lucy Lattimore sneaks away from the small town of Pompey, Ohio, with her charismatic former history teacher. They arrive in Nebraska, in the middle of nowhere, at a long-deserted motel next to a dried-up reservoir, to figure out the next move on their path to a new life. But soon Lucy begins to feel quietly uneasy.

My whole life is a lie, thinks Ryan Schuyler, who has recently learned some shocking news. In response, he walks off the Northwestern University campus, hops on a bus, and breaks loose from his existence, which suddenly seems abstract and tenuous. Presumed dead, Ryan decides to remake himself–through unconventional and precarious means.

My guess is Mr. Chaon does not think of himself as a Generation X writer. But he was born in 1964. And I think if you examine his other works, short stories and a previous novel, you could make a reasonable argument for him qualifying as a GenX author. Anyway, that’s my take on it. Although it wasn’t initially. Not until I watched Grosse Pointe Blank again. And recalling coming across Joshua Ferris’ new novel on amazon — The Unnamed. Check out the descrip of this new novel:

Tim Farnsworth is a handsome, healthy man, aging with the grace of a matinee idol. His wife Jane still loves him, and for all its quiet trials, their marriage is still stronger than most. Despite long hours at the office, he remains passionate about his work, and his partnership at a prestigious Manhattan law firm means that the work he does is important. And, even as his daughter Becka retreats behind her guitar, her dreadlocks and her puppy fat, he offers her every one of a father’s honest lies about her being the most beautiful girl in the world.

He loves his wife, his family, his work, his home. He loves his kitchen. And then one day he stands up and walks out. And keeps walking.

In addition to that, I thought about a stories that I’ve heard about people, GenXers, who just up and walked away from their lives one day. Not necessarily disappearing, but still walking away.

I considered too that this has been a recurring theme in my own writing, characters that just walk away suddenly and disappear. I never thought much about it until now. Why does t his interest me? Is there something it beyond my own fascination?

And so I’m wondering if this is a GenX thing, for lack of a better description. is this a commonly held experience or idea or hidden impulse within Generation X? Or am I just imaging things, as I am want to do from time to time? I don’t know. You tell me.