In Dan Chaon’s second novel, Await Your Reply, a severed hand in an icebox proves as much a harbinger of horror as an unsolicited e-mail. Via equal parts Alfred Hitchcock and Vladimir Nabokov, Chaon attempts to reinvent the ghost story, updating time-honored mystery conventions for the information age, and squeezing in some postmodern metafictional musings along the way. It’s Henry James meets William Gibson by way of Stephen King, a delicate hodgepodge that narrowly survives the weight of its own intricate design.
The first of three entwined narratives introduces Ryan Schuyler, freshly mutilated, his bloodied left hand nestled among ice cubes in a Styrofoam cooler as his father races him to the hospital. There’s Lucy Lattimore, seduced by her high-school teacher George Orson, adrift in rural Nebraska at the Lighthouse Motel, overlooking an ominously drained, dried-up lake. At the novel’s center is Miles Cheshire, navigating toward the Arctic Circle in search of his long-lost twin brother Hayden. The novel moves backward and forward in time, overlapping each narrative with progressively revealing details about these three vagabonds, equally desperate to redefine themselves while shedding their past, evading responsibility, and unwittingly spiraling down into the criminal world of identity theft. What could have easily devolved into contrivance, Chaon handles artfully, placing a nail-biter to appease the most discerning genre-fiction fan right alongside lofty ruminations on the nature of self that should please anyone who’s read Nabokov’s The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight, which Chaon quotes as a section-opener.
Inevitably, the book’s weakness is in its ending; depending on preconceptions or perspective, readers may find the resolution revelatory or anticlimactic. Mostly, it’s just a relief. In the novel’s final pages, it’s hard not to be distracted, as Chaon’s big authorial hand ties up all the strings. But perhaps that’s the point. We live our lives in constant revision, and the scaffolding never gets pulled away. And like the valediction of the book’s title, as much as we yearn to be self-made, we live or die by how others respond to our invention.