Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A collection that is stronger than the sum of its parts

Stay Awake: Stories
by Dan Chaon

Dan Chaon's last novel, Await Your Reply, was my introduction to his work. It was one of my favorite novels of the last few years, and I'm now fan. This latest collection of stories was a more qualified success. First, perhaps, I should note that I'm a long-form reader. Short stories aren't my typical fare.

And these stories were, for lack of a better word, weird. There is a better word, of course, but I can't quite think of it. Mr. Chaon is a world-class prose stylist, so each story was a pleasure to read, but as I delved into the first several in this collection of twelve, I'd be reading along and then the story would end rather abruptly. And I'd be like, What just happened?

These stories were disquieting. The opening sentence of the first story, "The Bees": "Gene's son Frankie wakes up screaming." That's evocative. It sets a tone for the tale of a recovering alcoholic who abandoned his first family and is now in crisis.

"Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted" (Great title!) opens: "There had been several funerals of his old high school friends and Brandon hadn't gone to any of them." It doesn't take a reader long to detect motifs of grief, death, deception, and loss in these tales--which is not to imply that the book is one big downer. It's thoughtful. And speculative. Sometimes funny, romantic, and, yes, a bit weird.

Keeping with the above themes, "Long Delayed, Always Expected"
opens: "When January turned fourty-four, she began to have gloomy thoughts about the future, about mortality and so forth." It recounts the resumption of her relationship with her brain-damaged ex-husband.

Chaon's characters find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, none more so, perhaps, than the parents of a baby with two heads in the collection's title story, "Stay Awake". My favorites were the achingly beautiful "To the Psychic Underworld", the mind-freaking "I Wake Up", and the amusing "Shepherdess", which opens: "The girl I've been seeing falls out of a tree one June evening." As above, it sets a tone for what is to come.

Ultimately, the collection as a whole worked more for me than the sum of its parts. Reading them all together added something that, again, I'm not quite able to articulate. But these stories, which often don't have tidy endings, will leave me thinking. And I will continue to read anything that Dan Chaon publishes.

1 comment:

  1. this was quite a collection. i am still thinking about my reaction to it, which was mostly positive. i think i agree with the review in the NYT (I think) which says that it detracts from the collection to read them all at once. And I think it's true...if I encountered just one of these, say, in the New Yorker, I think I'd be bowled over. Reading them in sequence, one after the other, kind of leadened the experience a little. but i don't know what the answer is to that! anyway, i am hoping to meet chaon at the AR book festival next week.