AWAIT YOUR REPLY / Dan Chaon. 2009 (324 pgs)
First Sentence: “We are on our way to the hospital, Ryan’s father says. Listen to me, Son: You are not going to bleed to death.”
Prevailing Narrative Voice: An engaged third-person voice that seems to come from a luminously distant perspective. The events seem to be viewed from a past that is very familiar, but not necessarily recent. The text tells the reader that events are being recalled with clarity and with the feeling of absolute recall, and yet there is a distant feeling – the safety of memory.
What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: Well, this is thrilling! As the reader can see from the first sentence, there is considerable urgency. From these opening words we quickly learn that father and son are speeding to a hospital because the boy’s hand is resting on a bed of ice in a cooler on the seat between them. Talk about being hooked into a story in the first few paragraphs! It is interesting to note that the reader is given a big dose of plot/action, but setting and character are left somewhat vague. In the first few paragraphs the reader learns three vital things: there is a father and a son; the son is experiencing shock (quaking, seeing colors, difficulty focusing); there is a severed hand on the seat between them. Very economical. Very exciting.
What the reader learns in the first ten pages: After the brief first chapter (1.5 pgs) and the episode in the car with the hand, the reader is introduced to a second set of characters in chapter two, which is also brief at four pages. It begins, “A few days after Lucy graduated from high school, she and George Orson left town in the middle of the night.” Then there is a quick third chapter, also brief (2 pgs), that introduces a third character’s perspective with, “By the time the first flush of recklessness had begun to burn off, Miles was already nearing the arctic circle.” Something larger than plot incidents are being introduced and that is RECKLESSNESS. In these three introductory scenes we meet characters who have done something far beyond their scope of everyday capability. They have stepped outside themselves and into what they can only imagine doing or having happen to them. In the second chapter we meet Lucy and George, but like “the father” in the first chapter, we view George via the experience of Lucy – familiar but distant. Lucy is a recent high school graduate. George is her boyfriend…and her former history teacher. Like with the severed hand, there is a whole lot of creepy in the sudden disclosure of this fact. In the third chapter we are introduced to a very disoriented Miles who has just – suddenly and somewhat recklessly – gotten into his car and driven from Cleveland to Inuvik, Canada on the edge of the Arctic Circle. In the last words of the chapter we learn that he “hopes” to find his twin brother. The reader is given a high level of urgency and excitement, a few facts about place and situation, but very little else in the way of substantiating information. This is a hugely exciting opening – three openings – with a narrative voice that is both extraordinarily familiar and yet simultaneously distant supporting the actions of these three main characters who are very far out of their familiar element.
Character: As I mention earlier, the reader is given a few specific details about each of the three main characters: Ryan, Lucy and Miles, and their states of mind. Each of them is in a highly unfamiliar place and in an agitated state. We are led to draw conclusions about each character based on their present circumstance and with circumstantial evidence that may only outline their point of view in the present moment. Since Ryan, Lucy and Miles are under duress, the reader can not exactly know what their version of regular might be. Assumedly after page ten, Choan presents enough back story or circumstances that gives the reader a picture of how each character operates under less stressful conditions.
Setting: Each setting is experienced via the somewhat disoriented perception of its main character. Ryan’s setting in the car is highly influenced by his circumstances. Lucy’s arrival at the very odd Lighthouse Motel in the middle of nowhere Nebraska (which reminded me of the motel in Psycho), is influenced by her feelings of abandoning her former life and running away with her teacher/lover. (When you read this book, notice how Choan utilizes the image of her lover’s hand resting on her thigh… after the previous chapter, this is an unsettling callback to the hand in the ice chest.) Miles, who is as far North in Canada as one can get, and as far away from his familiar Cleveland, is experiencing his surroundings as supernaturally glowing from within. Particularly with Lucy and Miles, the reader is given a sample of information from the character’s present experience, blended with expectations from what they had expected the future to resemble.
Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: Choan, in very few pages, outlines three sets of conditions in three main characters that signal to the reader that there is a lot of excitement and urgency to follow. In a fictional setting such as this where the reader is introduced to three distinctly different situations and characters, one could assume that – somehow – these three stories are going to interact. That would be a traditional expectation based on what the author offers in these early pages. How he does that remains to be seen. Each narrative subject that Choan establishes in the three individual openings feels like a stand-alone story. That is probably not the case, as this is a novel. (Read it and find out.) What I haven’t mentioned yet is that the majority of the fourth chapter falls within the first ten pages and begins (referring to Ryan and his hand) like this, “The man said, “Above the wrist? Or below the wrist?”” It was horrifying for me to grasp that Ryan’s hand had been removed intentionally and maliciously by an unidentified man “with a sleepy, almost affectless voice, the voice you might hear if you called a hotline for computer technical support.” Then the reader is given a description of how this happened and why. It is so creepy! This all happens within the first ten pages of the story.
Random Comments: With any luck at all, Mr. Choan will be given a big, fat film deal for his story I AWAIT YOUR REPLY. With no reservation at all I admit I have read the entire book and suspect that it is one of the finest and most economically written fictions I have read. The graphically disturbing images of the first ten pages give way to different kinds of disturbances in the main character’s situations. I am a very lucky guy, as later today, I will attend a graduate seminar with Dan Choan discussing this story and his observations on story telling. The opportunity to engage with significant, live writers such as him is one of the great benefits of my grad school program. And the faculty assigns great reading material such as I AWAIT YOUR REPLY.
Read this book!