Author: Dan Chaon
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: March 2017
I received an advance reader’s copy of this book as part of a Read It Forward giveaway.
Memory. Dream. Trauma. Paranoia. Gullibility. Belief. Doubt. The entire concept of self that gets glued together and then ultimately undone by these things. The sense that a person or the entire universe might be emanating ill will toward you.
In Dan Chaon’s new novel, the protagonist is a family man and psychologist whose family and psyche crumble around him. Dustin Tillman harbors a deep scar from his past, whene he and his cousins survived the murders of the adults in his family. His adopted brother, deeply troubled and abusive, was somewhat questionably convicted for the crime during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. The mysteries of past and present swirl together so that thirty years later, murky questions and unknown answers drag our character down.
The subject matter is grim, but the questions raised are fascinating. The character studies show all the gradations of the uncertain grasp we have on reality. Early on, Dustin ponders a phrase of his wife’s: “Sometimes a dead bird is just a dead bird.” This healthy skepticism allows him to function day-to-day. But when the persuasive character of Aqil enters the picture, Dustin is pulled into the murky waters of pseudo-mystery and conspiracy theory. Chaon carefully builds the plausibility of his character’s obsessions. Even when statistics tell you that a dead bird is probably just a dead bird, the sheer possibility (however small) of an organized explanation for strange events is enough to make you second-guess yourself. After all, even if 99 out of 100 conspiracy theories are just that—crazy theories—that 100th one really could turn out to be a malevolent plot. The not knowing is the hardest part. Add to that the desire to fight loneliness by attaching oneself to a personal truth, however skewed: “Maybe I believed again—or maybe it once more believed in me.”
Chaon’s skill lies in the paranoid backdrop uses to surround his characters. On the surface, a lot of the text is just people talking, in person or on the phone, or sending texts. There are also probably more scenes where someone is alone than a creative writing teacher would recommend. But somehow the writing still works, with just the right level of unease seeping into the characters’ consciousness.
But now, with my eyes opened in the dark, the clicks and hums of the house settling, the radiators stirring, the appliances doing their secret nighttime work, with my heart beating in an uncomfortably noticeable way, I couldn’t help but think: What if the dots are connected?
The story also contains some sad drug usage, and the tangible descriptions make me wonder if Chaon himself struggled in the past. (“All your worst instincts are having a party together. All of them have an oar, rowing toward opposite shores.”) Or maybe he just has that writer’s treasure of piercing observation and putting oneself in another’s headspace. The whole novel goes into rather dark territory and doesn’t really come out again, but I appreciate the gray areas explored in the various topics and how the tragedies serve the story. I’m not one who supports grimness for the sake of grimness. And while Chaon is not trying to make a big statement, focusing instead on a weave of stories within a single family, the line “poor people pass down damage the way rich people pass down an inheritance” is especially on point in framing the reasons why people’s actions often cannot be ultimately their own.
I’m kind of surprised how much this book captured me. Maybe I shouldn’t have been—years ago I remember liking Await Your Reply, despite its boring title and boring cover art. This book has the same superficial issues, so I’m lucky that I nabbed this one in the giveaway or else I might never have given it a try. Lastly, because it ties in so well with the tagline of this blog, I have to include one final quote that the author uses to open part of the book. It’s by Lynda Barry:
The future is fixed
The past ever-changing—