Columns > Published on February 11th, 2013

Why The F*ck Aren't You Reading Dan Chaon?

Why The F*ck Aren't You Reading? is a new feature where the columnist spotlights a writer who has a dedicated following and is well known within the writing community, but hasn't achieved the elephant-in-the-room style success of a Stephen King or Gillian Flynn—But they deserve to, dammit! Hopefully the column will help gain the author featured a few more well deserved readers.

Here is a snake with a girl in his mouth. She is a little blond girl, about four years old, and he is a rare albino anaconda, pink and white, about three feet long—just a baby, really. Nevertheless, he is trying to eat the child; her hand and forearm have disappeared down his throat, and he has coiled the rest of his body around her bicep, trying to constrict it. His wide mouth gives the impression of gloating merriment; she, of course, is screaming, and Hollis and his young nephew draw closer to the small circle of bystanders who have formed around her. “It’s all right,” the owner of the Reptile Petting Zoo tells the gathering as he tries to unwind the snake’s coils. “Everything is under control.” The girl is apparently the owner’s daughter. “Just calm down,” he says. “Didn’t Daddy tell you that you should always wash your hands after playing with the gerbils? Now Rosario thinks that you are a gerbil!”
“I hate Rosario!” the little girl wails.

--"Passengers, Remain Calm", Among The Missing

Upon reading this, what was your initial reaction? Was it horror? Revulsion? Anxiety?

Me, my first reaction was to laugh.

You have to admit, there's almost a Loony Tunes style image that pops to mind while reading it. Picture the snake sunning itself, a human shape is its middle, and that shape, maybe finger pointed skyward, yelling, 'I hate Rosario!' Trust me when I say this, comparing the opening paragraph of Dan Chaon's masterful short story, "Passengers, Remain Calm" to a cartoon isn't meant to be an insult. This story of an uncle and his nephew, both of whom are dealing with the abrupt disapearance of the boy's father, spending the day at a mid-western carnival is so common place—the sights of various attractions, the smell of fried foods, the cloying stink of animal dung and the dust of thousands of strange feet kicking it up into the air as they walk—and something that we've all experienced at one time or another. But with Chaon and his fiction, he takes the common place and points out the small, repellent things under the surface, the things we pass by and hardly notice, the invisible. He whispers in our ear, makes some off-handed comment that causes us to chuckle and nod our head in agreement. But Chaon doesn't allow the reader to dwell too long on what he's just revealed to us, because there are far more disturbing things he needs to point out.

The Skinny aka Just The Facts and Nothing But The Facts

Dan Chaon is the author of five books: two novels—You Remind Me Of Me and Await Your Reply—and three short story collections—Fitting Ends, Among The Missing, and Stay Awake. He was a finalist in 2001 for the National Book Award for his second short story collection, Among The Missing. His short fiction has been widely anthologized in such collections as The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. He's also been nominated for The National Magazine Award for Fiction and was recently nominated for the 2012 Story Prize (along with Junot Diaz and Clare Vaye Watkins). Chaon was awarded the 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and is the Pauline M. Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College in Cleveland, Ohio.

Simply put, folks, Chaon is a heavy hitter in American letters.

The Work aka Why You Should Be Reading This Guy

I recently described Dan Chaon to a friend (and later on Twitter) as being the Cormac McCarthy of the Mid-West. And no, it's not because Chaon is writing stories about post-apocalyptic wastelands or hitmen running down their money and drugs. It's because Chaon occupies the same territory as McCarthy—meaning that there is no easy way to categorize his writing. But that doesn't mean publishing and fans aren't trying to. (Yeah, I'm looking at you, Goodreads!) The other trait Chaon shares with McCarthy is the easy, plain spoken lyricism of his prose. The distinct difference between the two is, as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, Chaon's ability to take the normal, the ordinary and tweak it enough that it becomes abstract, a freakshow. But all of the oddities locked behind heavy iron bars and on display are your next door neighbors, your best friend, your family.

Dear Brandon,
Your father and I have made a very difficult decision and I am writing to apologize for any pain that may be caused. Please, honey, don't feel guilty or as if this is all your fault because there is really nothing you could have done. Just always remember the happy times we shared as a family. You were a wonderful son!
All our love,
Mom & Dad

--“Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted”, Stay Awake

The excerpt from “Patrick Lane, Flabergasted” is the suicide note Brandon's parents left him explaining the reason why they chose to end their lives. Brandon's a normal enough guy— he works at a grocery store, he's a little lazy— but what's most striking about him is that he still lives in the same house where his parents killed themselves. Or I should say he lives in one room of the house and is letting the rest of it decay and fall apart around him.

When I was reading the story, I was a bit disgusted by Brandon. Here he is, an able bodied, albeit socially awkward, young man with his entire life ahead of him, so much potential. But here he sits, in a dilapidated house, playing video games from his adolescence, his days rolling one to the next with minimal interaction with other human beings. He is sloth personified. Upon re-reading, though, I asked myself, what would my reaction be? What if I was the one who came upon my parents suicide note? What if I was the one who had to call the police? What if I was the one who had to live with the words:

“... Please, honey, don't feel guilty or as if this is all your fault...”

Would I just brush that off, move on after the grief of their deaths? Or would I believe that I was the reason my parents decided to kill themselves—as so many children of suicide do—despite their platitudes? Would I let those words destroy my identity and define me as a person? 

Identity—the loss, regaining, or replacing of—is Chaon's thematic sweet spot. Time and again, Chaon returns to it in both his short fiction and novels. He, of course, approaches it from different angles, thus keeping the reader turning pages. But make no mistake about it, Chaon wants us to take a hard look at his characters—and by default, ourselves—and ask the questions: Who are you really and what actions have defined you? Because you have to ask yourself, are you really you? Or can you be forever altered, where the former you is nothing but a shade, a fading, long distance memory?

The other thing which is most striking about Chaon is his sense of humor. (Yeah, this is the part where I loop around back to the opening quote.) Chaon instills a sense of the absurd in his writing, where even the darkest of subject matter—a widower lost in his grief and loneliness, a brother lamenting the choices his sister has made while watching her and her husbands honeymoon video, a newly single woman sleeping with an inflatable half torso of a man meant to discourage car jackers because she misses the feel of her husband sleeping next to her—causes you to chuckle because you can see yourself reacting in the same way as his characters, or because life, despite all of its pain and hardships, is pretty damn funny, even when it involves a toddler being swallowed alive by a giant snake.

Where To Start aka What Book Should I Read First, Smart Guy?

Yeah, the question is entirely subjective. But if you're like me—a writer and admirer of short fiction—the collections are the best place to start. Each collection has a distinctive voice and exhibits a distinctive level of growth as a storyteller. Chaon's debut, Fitting Ends, has a certain level of anger and aggressiveness to it that you often associate with a young writer; Among The Missing is stylistically far more mature; and Stay Awake is a truly horrifying journey. But, (and my Frazen haters in the audience will love this pick because after reading it you'll realize The Corrections is a lesser book compared to it) if I were to pick just one, it would be the National Book Award nominated, Among The Missing.

But if you're a meat and potatoes style reader who thinks that novels are the bees knees of creative writing (btw, you're wrong), I'd recommend Chaon's second novel of identity theft, Await Your Reply. Most likely the thriller like pacing and bold opening of the novel will keep you turning pages.

We are on the way to the hospital, Ryan's father says.
Listen to me, Son:
You are not going to bleed to death

Although I have to say that the meditative pacing of Chaon's first novel, You Remind Me Of Me, was far more appealing to me. But certain readers might be a bit turned off by its melancholia. Honestly, though, no matter where you start off with Dan Chaon, you're going to be astonished by this truly powerful and distinctive storyteller.

Alright, gang, before I wrap up, I want to let you know that I'm hoping to make Why The F*ck Aren't You Reading? a regular feature, and for the next one, I want some help from you. Who should be the subject of the next column? Pick a writer who you think is more deserving of a broader audience. Genre doesn't matter. The only things I ask is that the author be a living, breathing one; and that they've published more than three books. And to sweeten the deal, if I pick your writer, I'll send you a copy of Chaon's second novel, Await Your Reply, so you can get started reading this amazing author.

About the author

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift. He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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