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Fragile, disappointed lives, examined using strange perspectives

Stay Awake

Dan Chaon, a Cleveland writer, was strongly recommended to me, by fellow blogger and writer Jilanne Hoffmann, who was spot on both in her enthusiasm for Chaon, and the sense I would also appreciate his rather quirky, melancholy, lost and confused characters. He is a writer in a sure but minor key, telling stories of people whose lives are quietly desperate.

There is nothing overdone in his writing, though the minds of his characters are sometimes strange.

The image which kept arising was of crumpled, colour faded tissue paper, found at the bottom of some box of forgotten relics in a house being cleared. Some faint aroma, compounded of roses and a breath of disappointment, percolates into the atmosphere as the fragile paper is unwrapped, in order to reveal what it contains – something like an old, pressed flower, or a crumpled hair ribbon – what we have here, clearly is something which was at once precious, something with a story, but what hangs in the atmosphere is a sad mystery, a sense that something was not realised or fulfilled

These indeed are Chaon’s characters. They don’t shout and scream with glaring ‘look at me! LOOK AT ME! Schlock’ We don’t have a writer who overburdens an empty centre with let me stand out from the crowd by being operatic and overblown, smack in the face humour.

Instead, a subtle, quieter vision of the strange foibles of lives, filled with a quiet despair, but also maybe on the edge of when they lost the ability to grasp what could have been better. And the humour is the wry, lightly touched absurdity of life itself, mockingly waiting to be discovered; not signalled with ‘here is a punchline’

Another image, or quality, arising from his writing is the betwixt time, the witching times – dusk, when evening gives place to night, and there is a moment (in nature) of hush. Or, that darkest hour just before dawn, when, yet again, there seems to be a moment between the dark night, and a certain stillness separate from that night, in the moment before the first bird breaks the silence. He is a writer of solstices, of equinoxes, of the ungraspable this turning into that

Each story stands on its own. However there are leitmotifs which make their way through more than one story, and these connect disparate lives, and snag at a subtext in the stories – identity, which Chaon looks at partly in neurobiological terms, creating uneasy responses to brain, mind, body ideas, so that even the reader is left slightly unsure about the ‘I’ who reads :

 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,


The uneasy images which appear in some of the stories, include an extremely rare Dan Chaonbirth defect, Craniopagus parasiticus, where a baby is born with one body, but two heads. This unsettling image is dealt with, not freakishly, but to unsettle the reader (and indeed, the father of such a baby, in one of the stories) into wondering who thinks, where consciousness resides and arises. I found myself plunged, by Chaon’s writing into moments of dislocation from myself, inhabiting the uneasy world of his fragile characters, who, again and again find the boundaries between themselves and other lives, their present selves and their past (or imagined future) selves, are not as defined as our left brained, daytime selves sometimes pretends

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