Fiction editor Lydia Melby reviews the latest collection by one of her favorite authors.
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October is a time for stories about the uncanny, the unexpected, and the feared. The cooling air and paling daylight brings a sense of a thinning barrier, an atmosphere ripe for the appearance of signs to decode. And in his newest collection of short stories, Stay Awake, Dan Chaon gives us these stories, increasing the atmospheric pressure with each sentence, each blank section break, and we grow more and more uneasy as we read, and cannot stop.
In Stay Awake, children wake up screaming. Parents fall asleep at the wheel. Men wake up choking, some with notes they aren’t sure they wrote, and can’t quite understand. Parents lean over their children in the dark, watching them sleep, reaching for them. Three girls sleep through their own attempted murder, and some day in the future, a girl will wake up with the memory of the presence of another inside her own mind, a voice that whispers “I’m still awake.” And she will wonder what it means, like the author writing, like us who read, they all wonder what it means.
Everyone is trying to understand.
In “I Wake Up,” Rob describes his disorientation as “that sense of grasping, a foot coming down and not finding the ground.” It’s a sense we feel more and more as each story progresses, even worse because at first, we can find the ground, or so we think, as each story grows out of a heavy realism. These people are the sort of characters we expect from Chaon—the drifting, the tired, the quiet members of society who creep along in its outer edges. People who live in the wide, blank loneliness of the Midwest, who bag groceries or drive semis. These are characters who’ve all lost someone, often in ways we consciously dread, or have even seen.
Like the father in the title story, everyone is looking for some sort of answer. After a long struggle to conceive, Zach’s baby Rosalie is born with two heads joined at the crown, mirror-image faces, a “parasitic twin” incapable of life without Rosalie’s body. Why do people want to have babies? Zach and his wife wonder, and as the answer approaches us, Chaon disconnects the narrative in a way that we read the whole story again, dreading that hint we’re sure we missed the first time around.
These stories, each told in the simple, melancholy prose we’ve come to love about Chaon’s work, mine that richness of possibility, that foreboding, not revealing what is waiting in the dark or on the other side of the door, looking at us through the window, but not fully in view. The best of these will cause a visceral reaction, a choking feeling in your throat, something growing in the back of your skull, “a flicker of consciousness would wink on and off.”
And as the answer approaches like in “Slowly We Open Our Eyes,” as “that awful, inevitable feeling…the ticking of a roulette wheel as the marble finally settles in place, ” Chaon cuts us off with our own, “Oh my God.”
This is not to say these stories leave us hanging. Many are well-written but predictable—“St. Dismas,” “The Bees,” “Long Expected, Always Delayed,” “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow.”
Others give us answers that are there, eerily within our reach.
When Critter in To Psychic Underworld: loses his wife, he begins to find little notes—stickies in the library about cybersex, a frantic love letter on a dollar bill, a single, plaintive word on every napkin in a clean stack. The messages grow more pointed, more private, until the last is spoken directly into his mind as he nears an inevitable breaking point that we don’t see, but expect.
And his survival is a stronger possibility than perhaps the saddest of these characters— Brandon in Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted, a young man living alone in the same house his parents killed themselves in. His world is slowly shrinking, his living space confining itself to the humming fort of the electronics that circle his bed, shrinking just as irrevocably as the window for his escape. The end to this story is as final and definite as we don’t want it to be.
But it’s the final story, “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily White Hands.” that most evokes a sense of otherworldly, a feeling as if a person you were speaking to stared at something over your shoulder, and then jumped. It’s the story I’ve read again and again, read aloud to myself and to unfortunate friends. It’s Chaon’s most experimental to date, and it’s the kind of story that will only exist once, a flawless sustained gasp. Chaon slowly, quietly, fills us first with sadness, then with dread, poured like a stream of cold, wet sand, bringing us the dreams we never wanted to admit we’d had, had and savored, and remembered the next morning whenever it was we woke up.
Because we do understand each other. We do understand.
And perhaps that’s why we jump, even though it’s the most commonplace thing in the world, when the wife waiting at our bedside looks up surprised, or the mother leaning over us in the dark touches our shoulder.
Oh, she says. You’re awake
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