Thursday, April 4, 2013

Reading Journal: Stay Awake, by Dan Chaon (2012)

I admit, I got excited when I picked this book up, because I desperately wanted more from this writer after reading his chilling story "The Bees" in McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. In retrospect, I'd rather have been more reserved, because this opener - about a completely incorrigible alcoholic and his flight from the damage he's done - was by far the best of the collection. I read the whole group, I think, because Chaon creates characters that come with loads of baggage, and I wanted to see what they would do with it; unfortunately, most of the time, the answer turned out to be "nothing." I thought most of the stories seemed unfinished, and not just in their unresolved endings - which are perfectly acceptable when done well - but in their heavy use of adverbs and lazy language that ought to have been remedied before publishing. I did enjoy the narrative in several of the stories, though, and it's not like there wasn't any compelling material: in "Slowly We Open Our Eyes," two brothers approach reconciliation on a drive home when they hit a deer, and in "Shepherdess," a man waits in a hospital room unsure of what to do when an early-relationship date ends with the other party severely injured after falling out of a tree. For all the quality premises and damaged characters, though - none of them take care of themselves, smoking or eating poorly or drinking too much - I found that a lot of them read like "workshop stories." (See this great John Barber article in The Globe and Mail, in which Greg Hollingshead calls such stories "highly competent but dull," and goes on to say: "The rule is the telling detail, so you get all this surface information, but to no effect. You have a kind of aesthetic sheen on the prose but you're not getting enough ideas and you're not getting enough dramatic energy.") In several stories - like "Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted," which (too bad for it) comes right after "The Bees" - the dramatic energy dissipates slowly throughout the story until you find yourself asking what has kept you reading this long. Competent but dull indeed; though Chaon's previous books have been National Book Award finalists and New York Times notables, this one reads like something that was rushed out. I'll try him again, but this collection disappointed me.

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