await your reply 5: parceling out your life

And you wipe the snow out of your hair and get back into your car and drive off toward an accumulation of the usual daily stuff–there is dinner to be made and laundry to be done and helping the kids with their homework and watching television on the couch with the dog resting her muzzle in your lap and a phone call you owe to your sister in Wisconsin and getting ready for bed, brushing and flossing and a few different pills that help to regulate your blood pressure and thyroid and a facial scrub that you apply and all the rituals that are–you are increasingly aware–units of measurement by which you are parceling out your life. (92)

This passage from Dan Chaon’s 2009 novel, Await Your Reply, reminds me of so many things:

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”  

  Mark Strand’s “The Continuous Life”: Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,/That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;”

the Zen saying: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours: “Laura reads the moment as it passes.  Here it is, she thinks; there it goes.  The page is about to turn.”

that surely there is more than this

and just as surely, no there’s not.

What are the units of measurement by which you are parceling out your life?

await your reply

~last in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

await your reply 4: image

From Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, how an image can make words come alive:

Without the image:

Her thoughts were not clearly articulated in her mind, but she could feel them moving swiftly, gathering.

“What are you thinking about?” George Orson said, and when he spoke, her thoughts scattered, broke up into fragments of memories.

That’s good, right?

With the image:

Her thoughts were not clearly articulated in her mind, but she could feel them moving swiftly, gathering.

“What are you thinking about?” George Orson said, and when he spoke, her thoughts scattered, broke up into fragments of memories, the way that the birds separated out of their formation and back into individual birds. (219)

A passage we will remember.

PS:

Dan Chaon’s words recall Toni Morrison’s from Beloved, and not wanting to miss an opportunity to share one of my favorite passages of all times, here it is:

She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind. (272-273)

~4th in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

await your reply 3: repetition with new detail

In Await Your Reply, published in 2009, Dan Chaon uses repetition in a very cool way. Instead of bogging down the original scene, he pushes the action forward first, then a bit later, moves in for a close-up or two, adding additional details.

For example, on page 246, Miles wakes up in bed with a woman and gropes for his underwear, which he puts on. So the assumption is they’ve had sex.

On page 248:

He was standing there in his underwear, still a bit groggy, still a bit dazzled by the fact that he’d had sex for the first time in two years… [new detail bolded]

Then on page 249:

He was standing there in his boxer shorts with their ridiculous hot pepper print… [new detail bolded]

What this technique does is to roll the scene along, allow the reader to move in for a quick close-up, and then continue along with the story.

It keeps things moving. It adds texture. It reinforces image.

~3rd in a series
~Cross-posted at Contrary Blog

await your reply 2: nods

In the surprisingly interesting Reader’s Guide at the back of Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, Chaon writes:

As a writer, I feel like I’m always in conversation with the books that I’ve read.

Yiyun Li, the author of The Vagrants, feels the same way: “I believe a writer writes to talk to his/her masters and literary heroes.” About William Trevor, she wrote:

I write stories to talk to his stories. And a story can talk to another story in many ways–a line, a character, a few details, or sometimes it is the mood of the story, the pacing and the music of the story…”

I found two of these nods by Chaon as I was reading Await Your Reply. When I found two, I got such a warm feeling inside. Here they are:

On page 81: “She might’ve been a good mother, Miles thought, if their father had lived.” >>>Flannery O’Connor, from “A Good Man is Hard to Find:” She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” [Here's a very cool link to Flannery O'Connor reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find" at Vanderbilt University in 1959--amazing]

On page 203: “Your jitters are starting to rub off on me. I’ve got the fucking fantods, man.” >>>David Foster Wallace throughout Infinite Jest.

A lovely practice.

~2nd in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

await your reply 1: three threads

From the first page of Dan Chaon‘s novel:

On the seat beside him, in between him and his father, Ryan’s severed hand is resting on a bed of ice in an eight-quart Styrofoam cooler.

Enough said?

Dan Chaon’s second novel and fourth book, Await Your Reply, which was published in 2009, intertwines 3 seemingly unrelated narrative threads that exude echoes of each other, assuring the reader that they will eventually come together. And they do. But no spoilers here.

3 threads. 324 pages. 3 parts–each one divided into numbered chapters.

Chaon gets each of the threads off the ground in a hurry: the 1st chapter is 2 pages; the 2nd is 5 pages; the 3rd is 3 pages. Bam. In 10 pages, the reader is aware of all 3 plot lines.

The “severed hand” scene comes first and takes place at night in a car. Chapter 2 begins with Lucy and George leaving town in the middle of the night. “Not fugitives–not exactly.” AND “They would make a clean break. A new life.” (Chaon has a sense of humor.) In Chapter 3 again a character is driving a car. And I wish I had time to count how many times the word hand or hands is used in each of the threads.

As I said, because of the repetition of images and details and echoes of themes, the reader knows that these threads are related. So the reader’s mind is fully engaged as she is reading, trying to answer the question of how. It’s like a treasure hunt. We’re looking for clues, reading carefully because we don’t want to miss anything. All of this creates energy and narrative drive.

In July in Vermont, Dan said that with Await Your Reply, he began with 3 images and a story, but that he had no idea how they were connected until the end of the first draft. He said that the second draft is always “super important” to him because he’s looking for iconography, like tarot cards, to signal where the power is–where an image and/or a moment is important.

Each image distinct and capsulized, like tarot cards laid down one by one. (147)

Read it, if you haven’t already. You won’t be disappointed.

~1st in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog