Rating: 3/5Dan Chaon would be a great poet of loneliness, if his writing weren’t so frustratingly devoid of poetry. All the stories in Chaon’s new collection, Stay Awake, unfold within a narrowly defined emotional range; his characters are isolated, haunted by loss, incomplete—some essential part of them is missing, or has been displaced by tragedy. Chaon—always a magnetic storyteller, even when all else fails—explores alienation and post-traumatic stress ambitiously, gesturing toward complex emotional shading. But he’s hobbled by a tin ear and a plainly conversational style that often keeps nuance just out of reach.
Chaon is at his best when he gets a little pulpy. His most impressive work to date, the identity-theft novel Await Your Reply, is a twisty, relentlessly plotted thriller that stays true to Chaon’s trademark landscape of lost, lonely losers. Stay Awake is bookended by two strong stories that flex similar genre muscles. Already something of a modern classic thanks to its publication nine years ago in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, opener “The Bees” makes the surprisingly natural leap from dark-toned realism to psychological horror worthy of Shirley Jackson: a recovering alcoholic, haunted by memories of the family he left behind to start a new life, finds his grip on reality slipping in response to his son’s night terrors. The story culminates in carnage and hints at supernatural possibilities, but leaves many interpretations open—some of which hinge on the all-too-real scenario of a relapsed drunk letting dark thoughts run wild.
It’s a piece of spectacularly creepy complexity, but the fresh pattern it seems to be setting for the rest of the book—ordinary psychological disturbances bleeding over into the realm of fantastical horror—is never firmly reestablished, giving way to more familiar noodling within the expected Raymond Carver framework. The nadir in this respect is “Long Delayed, Always Expected,” a frankly embarrassing story about a woman embarking on an affair with her brain-damaged, functionally autistic ex-husband. It’s a Lifetime original movie in 20 pages. Elsewhere, Chaon makes half-hearted stabs at replicating the bracing duality of “The Bees”—a character’s repeated discoveries of bizarre notes in “To Psychic Underworld,” more traumatic memories resurfacing violently in “I Wake Up”—with diminishing returns.
Inserting the odd disruptive element into otherwise conventional short stories isn’t enough to overcome the inherent weaknesses of Chaon’s awkwardly conversational prose. Third-person narrators explicate characters’ thoughts as if dashing off a quick e-mail to friends, and this casual tone bumps up against stilted phrases like “he has been aware of a certain degree of suicidal ideation”—a cringe-worthy construction I can’t imagine working in any narration, let alone one intended to reflect closely the plain-jane patois of its working-class characters. When Chaon is able to overcome his stylistic limitations and craft solid sentences, the results are sometimes disarming, as in this description of boyhood farm memories: “The hazy blue eyes of the piglets, their clean wet nuzzling snouts. He put his fingers in their mouths and let them nurse, cradling them in the crook of his arm. It was a kind of love, he realized later, a certain glimmer. To care for something helpless, knowing it was doomed.” When he feels like getting down to business, Chaon can sing.
The closing bookend, “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands,” is the only other piece that fully commits to the peculiar brand of horror innovated in “The Bees.” In fact, it goes further than its predecessor, largely abandoning realism in favor of a strangely inverted ghost story: three spirits of living souls, sisters whose father murdered their mother and attempted to kill them too, provide narration from… well, not from beyond the grave, because the sisters aren’t dead yet, but from a hidden vantage that suggests maybe we ought to rethink our definition of what constitutes a ghost. It’s the boldest and scariest story in the collection, but its placement at the end only reinforces the mediocrity of what came before. If and when Chaon churns out a book entirely devoted to the horror-influenced style he flirts with sporadically in Stay Awake, the results could be revelatory—poetry or no poetry.