For several years, I kept a list of the books and authors that I didn’t have time for just then, but wanted to read at some point. I might see a review or other reference to a book, think “that looks interesting” and put it on the list. But as time went by, the list grew, and the memory of authors who had really piqued my interest would sometimes fade.
Dan Chaon (who’s coming to the West Virginia Book Festival this weekend) was one of those authors. I think it was his short story collection “Among the Missing” (a National Book Award finalist in 2001) that caught my eye, or it could have been his first novel, 2004’s “You Remind Me of Me.” Regardless, I didn’t forget his name, but I didn’t read the books, either.
Then a few years ago, a friend recommended — practically demanded — that I read “Await Your Reply,” Chaon’s new (at the time) novel.
It was amazing; “literary fiction” that read like a thriller, full of suspense and intrigue. Chaon takes three separate and (seemingly) unrelated plot threads — a teenage girl who runs away with her high school teacher; a college student who joins his estranged birth father in an identity-theft scam; and a young man searching for his unstable twin brother. (Chaon’s first novel, “You Remind Me of Me,” uses a similar three-part plot structure.) The storylines eventually converge, like three airplanes on a collision course, with about the same result.
I’ve since read two of Chaon’s three short-story collections, “Among the Missing” and “Stay Awake,” which was published earlier this year (and came out in paperback last week). Each of them, in its own way, is a remarkable work; choosing between them is like choosing the filet mignon or the porterhouse (that analogy is in honor of Chaon telling NPR in 2006 that if he didn’t write a page a day, he punished himself with a vegetarian meal).
As you might guess from the title, “Among the Missing” is full of stories about absence and loss. The first story, “Safety Man,” deals with a woman who, after her husband’s death, finds unnatural solace in an inanimate replacement. People in other stories have missing parents, spouses and friends — but the emotional losses can be worse than physical absence, as Chaon (pronounced Shawn) shows that it’s possible to be gone even while you’re still there.
The new book, “Stay Awake,” collects stories that Chaon has published over the past decade, beginning with “The Bees,” which (according to a review in the San Francisco Chronicle) began when McSweeney’s guest editor Michael Chabon asked for a piece of literary fiction that crossed genre lines, and Chaon came up with a horror-tinged tale of a man trying to make his second family work after his first one imploded.
Themes of loss once again run through “Stay Awake,” but the supernatural patina established in “The Bees” colors the rest of the book. In several stories, shadowy figures appear, leaning over people or trying to impart messages, and you’re not sure if the memories and apparitions are real, or if the characters are losing their grip on reality– or both, I suppose. The horror aspect is rarely overt, but you may find yourself scared, without really knowing why. And once you know that Chaon’s wife, the writer Sheila Schwartz, died of cancer in 2008, the stories gain another layer of meaning. In places, they are truly chilling.
(One of the “Stay Awake” stories, titled “Shepherdess,” is online at the website of the excellent Virginia Quarterly Review, so you can see if it appeals to you — but know that it may be the story least like all the rest in “Stay Awake.”)
So while I’m excited about everyone at this year’s West Virginia Book Festival, from Charlaine Harris and Craig Johnson on down, I will admit that in the festival’s 12 years, I’ve rarely looked forward to seeing an author as much as I am Dan Chaon. He’s reading on Sunday at 2 p.m., in an event sponsored by the West Virginia Library Commission and the West Virginia Center for the Book. I’ll be there; I hope you will too.
And I really ought to go back and look at that must-read list I used to keep. I wonder who else is on it.