The Short Review

shining the spotlight on short story collections

Review of Stay Awake by Dan Chaon

Stay Awake
by Dan Chaon

Ballantine Books, 2012

Reviewed by Mario Guslandi       

“Daddy is on his way home to kill us,”  (The Farm, The Gold, The Lily-White Hands)

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There are some writers who are so skilled in creating fiction tasting like reality that when you read their work you realize they are sharing the very feelings you have when getting up in the morning to go to work, when you drive your car reminiscing about your previous life, or when you simply meditate about your place in the world, your failures, your inability to connect in depth with your friends, your own wife and kids. Dan Chaon is one of those gifted writers. Human relationships (or the lack of them)  are the main subject of his latest short story collection, a book which will leave you exhilarated and depressed, bewitched and disgusted, spellbound and scared, exactly like life can do.

Most of the twelve stories included , fine examples of excellent mainstream fiction, have a dark undercurrent which makes us wonder if the world in which we’re living is not, after all, just a wicked, cruel and lonely place where we are playing our role as pawns in a senseless game.

Take for example, the two stories that bookend the present collection. Both tales are deeply disquieting and it’s hard to tell if this is due more to the supernatural element or to the fearful melancholy of our daily existence.

The Bees is an eerie, disturbing piece , featuring a man haunted by his past and by his dead child coming back to wreak terror and destruction, while The Farm, The Gold, The Lily-White Hands is an ambiguous but powerful ghost story, a dramatic tableau representing the domestic horrors of an American family where love is lost and madness lurks around corners.

Long Delayed, Always Expected is a superb story portraying a middle-aged woman, whose daughter has just left home for college, and her reborn relationship with her former husband who has been left brain damaged after a car accident.

“One quiet late afternoon, as she was rolling her cart through a narrow, desolate row of bookshelves, a line abruptly came into her mind: She is the type of person who has rejected love at every turn. He patted the back of her hand and she turned her hand over so their palms were touching and their fingers moved vaguely into one another in a melancholy, exploratory way and then the fingers interlocked…”

In Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow the emptiness and the dull pain following the death of a deformed baby and the progressive estrangement taking place in the two teenage parents are described in a masterful fashion.

Slowly We Open Our Eyes is an “on the road” tale featuring a loser travelling toward home in his brother’s truck to attend their grandma’s funeral. An unlucky journey into the night and into a wasted life.

The outstanding Shepherdess, certainly one of the highlights of the book, is yet another insightful portrait of life’s brutality with its great disappointments and defeats, here embodied in a man dealing at the same time with his mother’s sudden death and the breakup with his new girlfriend.

“This is one of those things that you can never explain to anyone; that’s what I want to explain – one of those free-association moments with connections that dissolve when you start to try to put them into words.”

My favourite tale is the title story, Stay Awake, a terrible piece exploring the deepest layer of human sorrow, where the father of a malformed child lies powerless in bed after a car accident.

“You want a child because it is a piece of yourself that will live on after you are dead… You want a child because it is a specific kind of love, a specific kind of experience of love that you feel certain can’t be replicated in any other way… You want a child because it is 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.”

Indeed a marvelous short story collection by a great writer.

Read Prosthesis by Dan Chaon here

About the reviewer: 

Mario Guslandi lives in Milan, Italy and, most likely is  the only Italian who regularly reads (and reviews) dark fiction in English. His reviews have appeared in a number of genre and non-genre  websites such as The Agony Column, The SF Site,  Horrorworld, Hellnotes, The British Fantasy Society , SF Revu etc.
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This entry was posted on May 31, 2013 by in reviews and tagged , , .
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