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Thursday, September 23, 2010

BPL Book Discussion: Await Your Reply

Await Your Reply: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle)On Monday, our book group met to discuss Dan Chaon's literary, psychological suspense novel, Await Your Reply.  On Monday, I had posted these questions which I wrote in order to lead the discussion. Chaon himself commented on the questions too.

Also, many of you may recall that I read this novel back in January and loved it! Here is the link to my full review.

From that post, I will share some plot info before I being with the notes from our discussion:
The plot is pretty simple.  There are three stories of three different people who are searching for someone or something.  The novel is also comprised of 3 sections.  In Part 1, each of the three "stories" is quite separate.  Each chapter follows one of the stories, alternating for the entire section.

In Part 2, little parts of each story start to blend together.  Terms, places, names, etc... repeat in what were once separate narratives.  This makes you uncomfortable as a reader, leading to a chaotic and violent ending to Part 2.

Are you with me? I still have Part 3 to describe, but I do need to mention that this layered story telling style means Await Your Reply needs to be read in just a few sittings in order for you to best enjoy the unsettling tone Chaon is consciously constructing.


Okay, back tot he novel. Part 3 rounds out the novel and by its conclusion everything is explained. For the surviving characters things are happy, but open ended. There is a big twist in Part 3 which explains why everything is so unsettling and confusing, but I will not ruin it here. Let's just say you should think outside the box if you want to figure it out.
Again, for the full review click here.

Now on to our discussion.
  • Of our 12 participants 6 liked the book, 1 did not, and 5 gave it the so-so rating. 8 also admitted to feeling confused. However, we unanimously agreed that this was an extremely well written, clever, and interestingly constructed book. Later in the discussion I brought up the fact that in the almost 10 years we have been meeting, we spent the most time ever discussing the literary aspects of the novel, delving deeply into the themes, and talking about the way it was written.  We all found this highly satisfying.
  • Many who voted for not liking the book said that this feeling was mostly driven by the fact that they did not like any of the characters enough to be invested in their stories. But, another participant countered by saying this book was theme driven, not plot or character driven so she did not mind that they characters were all severely flawed. She was propelled by the issues of identity, who was who, and how they would all be worked out. Our group consensus on this point was stated by yet another participant when she said it was fun to read intellectually, but it was unsatisfying emotionally.
  • Obviously, we needed to talk about the construction of the novel which is mentioned in my plot summary above. Overall we agreed that this fractured storytelling enhanced our reading of the novel. For example, one member said you could not help but think about the main issue of identity since you were always questioning "who is who." One person however, did say she did not enjoy the book's construction because she felt "manipulated" by Chaon. I countered by saying that she is right, she was manipulated by Chaon, but that was the point.
  • We loved Chaon's use of small details to enhance the unsettling tone of the story. Singled out by the group were making Hayden and Miles' dad a magician, the recurring use of the "lighthouse," and the isolated, unique, and quirky settings. Specifically, we loved the settings and thought they enhanced the story greatly. Since many participants were not emotionally invested in any of the characters, they loved that the settings "added flavor" since they were "extreme" and "dreamlike."
  • Next we tackled the main character, who we are going to call Hayden because we think that is his birth name. although if this book taught us one thing, what his name is, what our name is, might not matter. But Hayden did show us that no matter the identity you take on, you are still the same person. In Hayden's case no matter how hard he tries to become someone else, things will never work out the way he wants them to.
  • We then talked about our own identities a bit. Does it matter what we call ourselves? We decided that no, your name is just what people call you. You are who you are no matter what name you go by. 
  • I liked this comment: Hayden has a hole to fill in himself, and he seeks out others with holes in their lives; holes he hopes to fill.
  •  We spent a good deal of time talking about the book's strengths. We agreed that Chaon's creation of an unsettling feeling is a big plus to this novel. You really have no idea what is coming next. We also thought it was "brilliant" to start with the most violent scene. We were primed and waiting for more violence, but it never came; only the retelling of this scene. The fact that he created all of this unease and dread without resorting to graphic language or violence was remarkable to us.
  • In terms of weaknesses, although the group enjoyed reading this book for a discussion group, a few wished that there were more "likable" characters. I asked what they thought happened to Lucy, Ryan, and Miles as a result of their run-ins with Hayden? But most people said, they really didn't care. They were happy that they made it through their ordeals, but did not want to know more.
  • When we did our usual activity of trying to describe the book in a few words, Some words that came up: depressing, nihilistic, hopeless, upsetting, confusing, and enjoyable. One participant was unsettled by the fact that she felt Chaon was saying to her that she was either the victim or the con.
  • The last point I want to bring up includes HUGE SPOILERS!!! So skip to the readalikes sections if you don't want to know the book's big twist. Okay, those of you still with me, here it is. I asked the group when they figured out that all three story lines were one story of Hayden and his different aliases and that the time line was purposely "messed up" to confuse the reader and enhance the themes. Some said it took until the last chapter. Others said they thought early on that Miles and Hayden were actually one person but that he had a split personality. I figured it out when the real Jay meets up with Hayden at the Denver airport. Still another participant said she was forced to take a break in the middle of the book due to hosting house guests. When she came back to it, she was making herself a chart of characters in order to get back into it and realized that Hayden, George, and Jay had to be the same person.
Readalikes: Our group talked about the similarities we found to Alfred Hitchcock stories and movies, specifically Vertigo with its focus on identity. Another member saw some connections to the Stieg Larsson books especially with all of the computer hacking. I had not thought of this, but I think she has a great point. They also both share a gritty, unsettling tone. We also talked about how similar in theme Await Your Reply is to Catch Me If You Can, a nonfiction book about a real person who in the mid-20th Century stole people's identities, only instead of computers, he did it through check fraud.  This led to a side discussion about what a great Hayden Leonardo DiCaprio would make (he played the lead in the movie version of Catch Me If You Can).

I must be getting through to the group, because all of these readalike (and watch alike) suggestions came throughout the course of the discussion, without any prodding from me.

I do have a few more suggestions from the first time I read Await Your Reply to share. You can click through for more, but here is a sampling to leave you with for this month:
In the acknowledgments, Chaon mentions many of his favorite authors who inspired him throughout his life and to whom he paid homage to in this book.  A few of these really work as readalikes for this specific book and I would like to point them out here. Ray Bradbury, Patricia Highsmith, and Peter Straub would all be good choices if you liked Await Your Reply.
Next month we are reading and discussion The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry

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