Imagine watching a car wreck, over and over again, in slow motion.
Such is the nightmare ensconced in Dan Chaon’s perturbing new collection out this month, Stay Awake (Ballantine).
Violence looms in each of the stories, buzzing up to the surface along with the repressed memories that keep Chaon’s (predominantly male) protagonists on the brink of sanity. Cars wreak the most havoc, continually tumbling into the darkness and crumpling the bodies of their careless drivers. But Chaon finds other methods of maiming his characters as well — fingers are repeatedly severed, a drunken girl falls out of a tree. And no one sleeps.
In the opening story, “The Bees,” a young boy’s night terrors escalate just as his father’s horrific, hidden history returns like the tide. The father, Gene, a former alcoholic, spent years terrorizing a previous wife and child before finally abandoning them in a drunken rage that ended in a car wreck. Gene’s new wife, Karen, doesn’t know the extent of the hideousness Gene inflicted on his ex- family, but Gene’s secrets threaten to destroy them all.
Throughout, Chaon meditates on the desire to escape death: “even when our death is imminent, we carry the image of ourselves moving forward, alive, into the future.” Hence, all the car trouble – autos are like an extension of the body, their forward movement a metaphor for our desire to continue to be propelled forward, even as we’re dying.
The primary method of propelling yourself into the future, of course, is by having children. “You want a child because it is a link in the bridge that you are building between the past and the future, a cantilever that holds you, so that you are not alone.” Chaon’s stories explore our relentless and reckless desire for procreation; they also turn the spotlight on all the suffering children left in their parents’ temerarious paths. Chaon’s parental characters are selfish, blind predators, capable of instilling incredible fear and unspeakable violence – children are taken on terrifying roller coaster rides, or left in abandoned houses, or worse.
In “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted,” college-dropout Brandon continues to live at his parents’ house even after his parents commit suicide in their bedroom. In “I Wake Up,” a couple adopts a foster child, Robbie, after their own child has died. Robbie’s biological sister, Cassie, then begins prompting Robbie to remember their biological mother’s heinous acts.
Chaon is the author of the novels Await Your Reply (2009) and You Remind Me of Me (2004). In Stay Awake, he delivers the kind of short story mastery he showed in Among the Missing (2001), a finalist for a National Book Award.
If you have children of your own, you will read Stay Awake at night with one eye on their bedrooms. You will wait anxiously as each story delivers up its deliciously unnerving morsel of trepidation. Then you will creep into your children’s rooms and – against all reason – promise to keep them safe.