I started reading the title story in Dan Chaon’s dark and mesmerizing collection, Stay Awake, before going to sleep. I thought it was an interesting little story about a deformed baby with two heads. The parents had decided not to name each head, but only the “host” one, the one that might survive the inevitable and extremely risky surgery. The surgery would bring an end to whatever consciousness was in the “parasitic” head, which was capable of blinking and smiling and probably not much else, and may in fact kill Rosalie, the head that was more alert. I was tired and, frankly, looking forward to finishing the story and putting the book aside so I could sleep. When I got to the end of the story, and, with a jolt, understood what happened, I could not sleep. As befitted the title, I lay there awake, contemplating consciousness, thought, emotion, self, life — what exactly is this stuff that goes on inside a person’s brain?
Probably my favorite story is “Slowly We Open Our Eyes.” Two brothers are driving cross-country in the semi truck one of the brothers drives for a living. They think they have hit a deer, though the drugs and peppermint schnapps they’ve consumed may have twisted their perceptions. In “I Wake Up,” an older sister — at least she says she’s his older sister — contacts her younger brother after being separated for years when their mother drowns two of their other siblings. In “St. Dismas,” a young man kidnaps the son of his meth-addicted girlfriend and takes him on a cross-country trip, breaking and entering into people’s houses. What is he to do with the boy? He hadn’t thought the whole thing through. When he gets to his own isolated boyhood home in the country, ripe with memories, he makes a decision. In “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted,” a young man tries to get through life after his parents leave him a suicide note on the front door of the house in which he thought they were a happy family. The living space in the house narrows bit by bit as memories and mementos he can’t face force him to shut himself into a smaller and smaller space. In the story most akin to a ghost story — “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands” — three sisters contemplate how their lives would be different if their Daddy had succeeded in killing them twenty years earlier.
The stories in this collection could be called horror stories, though there are no monsters, no aliens, no scary chases. There are, perhaps, some ghosts. The real terror comes from losing control of your mind, of not quite grasping what is going on around you. The horror comes from the inside: confused states stemming from grief, separation, guilt. These twelve stories are mostly inner dialogues — somber, sometimes philosophical narrations by family members who have been through hell at the hands of someone who should have loved them. They start out gently, with little hints dropped throughout the narration that something just isn’t quite right and, by the end of the story, the reader realizes how utterly horrible the protagonist’s circumstances have been. Chaon powerfully describes the warped senses and circumstances of his characters, subtly weaving horror into what at first appear to be commonplace situations.
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