A sprinter who excels at the 100-yard dash may never attempt a marathon. A poet who composes haiku might not be able to sustain an epic. Though writers of short stories are almost invariably encouraged to become novelists—a contract for a debut story collection is typically a bet hedged against the longer work to come—some authors who master the former don’t seem as well suited to the latter. Maybe it’s a question of scope, or even artistic stamina, but the novel requires a different mindset. It isn’t just a longer story.
Ohio’s Dan Chaon, whose two collections established him as one of America’s most promising short story writers, returns this fall with a second novel, Await Your Reply, easily his most ambitious work to date. As in his stories and previous novel (You Remind Me of Me, 2004), this book focuses on family dynamics, the quest for identity and the essence of the Heartland—in some ways, Chaon is to the Midwest what Richard Russo is to the Northeast—but the structure has an innovative audacity missing from his earlier, more straightforward work.
The novel initially seems to be three separate narratives, presented in round-robin fashion, connected only by some plot similarities (characters on a quest or on the lam, a tragic loss of parents) and thematic underpinnings (the chimera of identity). One narrative concerns a college dropout who learns that the man he thought was his uncle is really his father, who recruits him for some criminal activity involving identity theft. The second involves an orphan who runs away with her high-school history teacher. The third features a twin in his 30s in search of his brother, likely a paranoid schizophrenic who occasionally sends messages yet refuses to be found.
It’s a tribute to Chaon’s narrative command that each of these parallel narratives sustains the reader’s interest, even though there’s little indication through two-thirds of the novel that these stories will ever intersect. And when they do, the results are so breathtaking in their inevitability that the reader practically feels compelled to start the novel anew, just to discover the cues that he’s missed along the way.
The novel and the short story each aspire to a different kind of perfection. We think no less of Alice Munro because she reigns supreme in the shorter form (though her short stories are longer than most). We continue to hail William Trevor and Lorrie Moore primarily for the exquisiteness of their stories, though both have attempted novels as well (shorter than many). More recently, Donald Ray Pollock’s hard-hitting Knockemstiff, a debut collection of interrelated stories, could have easily been marketed as a novel. And Aleksander Hemon’s return to stories with Love and Obstacles could pass as a follow-up novel to his brilliant The Lazarus Project. With Chaon, one senses that there’s no going back. His stories established his early reputation. He did that. Now he’s doing this.