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Another fine mess

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Ottessa Moshfegh
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James McBride
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Complete Novels
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Await Your Reply - Dan Chaon I started this two nights ago, read a couple chapters and was instantly hooked by the cold open, two men rushing for emergency help, an amputated hand in an ice cooler on their front seat. But it was late, and I thought--cool, a thriller to dabble with for the next few nights.

Then last night I picked it up, and had to force myself to go to sleep after 200 some pages. While decidedly thrilling, and structured so that we readers lean heavily on the title's first word, constantly tilting forward in our chairs, awaiting how the three central plots respectively and collaboratively progress, the book's uncanny suspense had more deep-seeded impact on me. My eyes were drooping, but I didn't want to rush, didn't merely want to check off the stations of the narratives as they coalesced. And I knew I'd get maybe 5 hours sleep if I stopped right then, so I did--and then was unable to stay away, and devoured the last third this morning, in between errands and meals and chores. Await Your Reply is a compulsive read, but it was the resonant echoes and underlying thrum of existential crises which got furthest under my skin. I wanted to know what happened, sure, but I really wanted to know what happened to *these* people, and I wanted to know why. And the centrifugal force of all those questions erupted from the who, central conundrums about identities which the narratives slyly exploit; to the novel's great credit, we get answers, and they satisfy on the purest level of story, and they also do not resolve a thing, and I left still waiting, wanting. Wondering.

Each storyline grapples with a detachment, the hand merely the most literal of the novel's many ruptures of, in, around identity. Each character is struggling with some search for and/or escape from self (the multiple tasks of the extended con, an elopement with an illicit love, a quest for a schizophrenic twin brother), and each storyline unseats the respective central character's self, leaving each unsure of who they really are. (The novel is also adroitly structured, tipping back and forward in time to confound us, to displace the 'origin' and leave us equally at sea about these selves.)

I was reminded of two great novels with similar suspenseful arcs, similar thematic momentum: Stephen Wright's vicious & funny Going Native and Jennifer Egan's tough-minded and beautiful Look at Me. Together they form a brilliant tryptych on alienation and the modern American self, but where Wright mines the mythic and mass-mediated horrors attendant with the violence of Self, and Egan attacks the way identity gets torn between a surface Image and deep patterns of history, Chaon charts his own roadmap; he seems far more empathetic, less concerned with archetype or cultural critique than with the endemic struggles we all have to make sense of who we are, how others see us, who we want to be, who we've been. This novel was deeply affecting, on so many levels: nails bitten, nerves frayed, heart tugged, mood altered, mind boggled. Great book.