Reviewed by: Heather Price
The approach a reader takes to a short story collection is very different than how he or she approaches a novel. I’ve heard it compared to the difference between a long-term relationship versus a one-night stand; you expect to spend days, even weeks, with a novel, but only one sitting with a short story. However, the stories in Dan Chaon’s latest collection, Stay Awake, are more akin to an obsessive relationship: you know you shouldn’t take them to bed with you, but you cannot help yourself. Even after you’re finished with them, they linger in your mind, haunting you, drawing you in for just one more read.
Part of this is due to a lack of closure. Chaon’s endings tend to leave the reader with an impending sense of doom, though he leaves out the specifics. [Please note that bolded sections contain mild spoilers.] In “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted,” we see the protagonist’s sanity wane throughout the story. This thread is woven with a terrible storm threatening to knock out all the power in the city and leave him completely alone and isolated. The story ends with these lines: “Then, with a sigh, the power shut down again. All across the city the light folded into itself, and the darkness spread out its arms.” We don’t know exactly what happens to the young man in the story–whether he survives the storm or returns to a normal life, but we do get the sense that whatever it is, it won’t be good.
Many of the stories in Stay Awake navigate similar terrain. “St. Dismas” follows Pierce, a man who kidnaps his girlfriend’s son (she’s a meth addict) and takes the kid to his childhood home in Nebraska. At this point, Pierce doesn’t know what to do about the boy any longer, so he abandons him there. The story concludes with this image: “His car no bigger than a flea, and Jesse even smaller, running and shrinking, running and shrinking.” What happens respectively to Pierce and Jesse? We don’t know, but both characters are isolated by the end, swallowed into this barren landscape.
Aside from the lack of closure, there are several images and themes that appear and accumulate throughout the collection, adding to the lingering sensation the reader feels upon finishing the book, which is much like the feeling after one finishes a novel. Themes of isolation and loneliness appear in nearly every story. Children are murdered or almost murdered, spouses die, suicides occur. In the hands of a lesser writer, these repetitions could be seen as merely a lack of creativity, but Chaon makes it work by demonstrating that these horrific cycles encompass us all.
The last story in this collection, “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands.” gathers all the other voices that appear throughout the collection and shows the reader that these repetitions and cycles are purposeful. When the character Daddy looks through a window and sees images from his past that cause him to fall off the ladder and suffer horrific injuries, images from previous stories come back into play.
This works because the perspective in this story, the collective voice of Daddy’s daughters—perhaps dead, perhaps alive—is fresh and effective. This supernatural approach explores the subject of cycles in families, how things like drug abuse and suicide and violence feed off each other and continue into new generations.
This story, and thus the collection, ends with the lines: “Let us say that this, all of this, has a logic to it. We understand each other, don’t we? Are we not, you and I, both of us spirits? Reader, do not ask me who at this very moment is dreaming you. Do not ask me when you are going to die. Do not ask me where the gold is buried.” These stories are crying out, daring you to try not to think about them, try not to reread them. This is the perfect end to this collection, a perfect example of Chaon’s mastery over endings, his ability to keep the reader engrossed and horrified at the same time.