Skip to content

Dan Chaon restores chills, suspense and blood to literary fiction

October 29, 2009

Dan Chaon_Credit Philip ChaonThe title of Dan Chaon‘s latest novel, Await Your Reply, may suggest some precious literary domestic drama. Nothing could be farther from the gruesome, nerve-wracking truth.

In fact, Chaon, whose novel has just been named to Publishers Weekly’s list of top 10 books of 2009, is rare among respected literary novelists for his willingness to use genre storytelling techniques — and to name his influences.

Chaon will be at Miami Book Fair International — which certainly has a knack for attracting hot writers — at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 15, in the company of fellow novelist John Dufresne (Requiem, Mass.)

In an interview with The Millions Magazine, Chaon unabashedly acknowledges two strains of literary influence. One is what you’d expect from a rapturously reviewed literary artiste: Sherwood Anderson, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro — masters of what he approvingly calls “regional realism.”

But in the next breath, Chaon gives equal weight to “writers of dark fantasy:” Peter Straub, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson.

“I’ve tended to be categorized more with the former group, the regional realists,” Chaon says, with no apparent self-consciousness. “But I think that you could make a good case to classify my work with the latter as well.”

What’s even more jaw-dropping, Chaon talks about the genre allusion salted throughout Await Your Reply, subtle references to lines and images from H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountain’s of Madness, Edgar Allen Poe’s sole novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and Shirley Jackson’s best-selling ’60s chiller, The Haunting of Hill House.

Let’s just say that there are a few dozen of these throughout the book,” Chaon says, “which some people might enjoy finding themselves. But my intent wasn’t merely to create a bunch of cute in-jokes, either. To a larger extent, I was using these little touchstones to draw forth a particular texture and mood.”

As a reader who enjoys literary fiction and good genre books with equal intensity, I can’t overstate how refreshing Chaon’s candor is, especially coming from a writer whose past honors include being a finalist for The National Book Award (2001’s Among the Missing).

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any serious writer this side of Joyce Carol Oates admitting to such down-market influences. But the quality of Chaon’s books insulates him from the reflexive snobbery of critics. He’s garnered rave notices since the 1996 publication of his first book, the short-story collection Fitting Ends.

Await Your Reply, published earlier this Fall, met with glowing notices in, among others, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post, where critic Ron Charles warned his audience to read as little as possible about the novel: “You need to step into this work of psychological suspense completely unprepared for what lurks in here.”

Chaon, who teaches at Oberlin College in Cleveland, Ohio, seems to be at an enviable point that comes to only a few lucky writers. Like Paul Auster, Denis Johnson or Jonathan Lethem before him, he’s poised for a leap into wider visibility in the cultural landscape, and with it, perhaps, many more readers.

So quick, clamber onto the bandwagon. If you haven’t found this uniquely gifted novelist and short story writer, now’s the right time. And don’t miss the chance to see and hear him in person at Miami Book Fair International.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    October 29, 2009 12:29 pm

    That all sounds good to me. But I just finished reading The City and The City by Mieville and I’m worried that nothing could quite compete right now. Although I admit, this book sounds like it might be a good follow up.

    And I agree with Ron Charles about reading as little as possible before picking up the book. But generally I think that about all books. And movies.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    October 29, 2009 4:01 pm

    I confess I passed on Chaon’s new book because I found the title insipid. After researching this blog, however, it’s definitely high on my list of recent titles to catch up with.

  3. OberlinProf permalink
    October 29, 2009 8:34 pm

    One small correction: Oberlin College, where Chaon teaches, is in Oberlin, Ohio, not in Cleveland.

  4. Candice Simmons permalink
    October 30, 2009 12:57 pm

    I agree with Rachel–Few can compare to “The City and The City.” Thank you, Chauncey Mabe, for suggesting it to me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: