AWAIT YOUR REPLY

The novel and the short story each aspire to a different kind of perfection. We think no less of Alice Munro because she...

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.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-345-47602-9

Page Count: 328

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2009

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A LITTLE LIFE

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

A first novel, this is also a first person account of Scout's (Jean Louise) recall of the years that led to the ending of a mystery, the breaking of her brother Jem's elbow, the death of her father's enemy — and the close of childhood years. A widower, Atticus raises his children with legal dispassion and paternal intelligence, and is ably abetted by Calpurnia, the colored cook, while the Alabama town of Maycomb, in the 1930's, remains aloof to their divergence from its tribal patterns. Scout and Jem, with their summer-time companion, Dill, find their paths free from interference — but not from dangers; their curiosity about the imprisoned Boo, whose miserable past is incorporated in their play, results in a tentative friendliness; their fears of Atticus' lack of distinction is dissipated when he shoots a mad dog; his defense of a Negro accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell, is followed with avid interest and turns the rabble whites against him. Scout is the means of averting an attack on Atticus but when he loses the case it is Boo who saves Jem and Scout by killing Mayella's father when he attempts to murder them. The shadows of a beginning for black-white understanding, the persistent fight that Scout carries on against school, Jem's emergence into adulthood, Calpurnia's quiet power, and all the incidents touching on the children's "growing outward" have an attractive starchiness that keeps this southern picture pert and provocative. There is much advance interest in this book; it has been selected by the Literary Guild and Reader's Digest; it should win many friends.

Pub Date: July 11, 1960

ISBN: 0060935464

Page Count: 323

Publisher: Lippincott

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1960

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