Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Identity Issues

It's eerie how often Gianna and I agree on books. Considering that we barely knew each other a little over two years ago (she actually walked up to me at Book Expo several years ago before I worked for Random House and I didn't have a clue who she was until she reminded me that we'd met before), we nonetheless seem to love many of the same books. We'll have these discussions where she'll call me and ask if I've read a book that I haven't thought about in years and I'll remember that I loved that book, and it turns out that she loved it too. So when Gianna recommends that I read a book, when she's so enthusiastic that she's sputtering with delight, I KNOW that I must read that title. She doesn't steer me wrong.

Back in January we began to find out what titles Random House planned to publish for this coming fall, and it's a phenomenal list to say the least. Gianna found out that there will be a new book from Dan Chaon, so she called me to see if I had read his previous books, AMONG THE MISSING and YOU REMIND ME OF ME. Of course I had, and of course I loved them. Chaon is one of the best writers out there and in a just world he would be a literary superstar and I would read about him on my cousin's Facebook posts instead of...the gagging drivel she reads and claims is "profownd" (sic). The new book, Gianna told me, was called AWAIT YOUR REPLY. Because it was on her side of the company, and because I needed to read about 15 other books before sales conference, I refrained from diving into the new Chaon book, the dessert to my meal of books that I would actually sell myself. Gianna kept teasing me, though. She sent me the first page of the manuscript, and she constantly asked, "Have you started it yet? You need to read it. I need to talk about it. Read it, read it, read it...."

So finally I read it. Holy crap! I love this book. The early comparisons among the sales force are authors like Patricia Highsmith (Talented Mr. Ripley series) and Flannery O'Connor, and in the acknowledgements Chaon mentions writers who've inspired him such as John Fowles and Joyce Carol Oates. AWAIT YOUR REPLY contains elements of all of these masters of fiction. The novel focuses around identity and what it means to exist (or not) in this world. The opening page Gianna sent me? Let me set the scene for you. A son is cradling his arm and drifting in and out of consciousness. His father is driving the car and trying to reassure the kid that they'll make it to the hospital. And sitting between them in an ice chest is the boy's hand, cut off at the wrist. AND the boy isn't convinced that his father's even taking him to the hospital. Who doesn't want to keep reading a book that starts this way?

There are three stories swirling around each other through AWAIT YOUR REPLY, and what Gianna didn't tell me when she kept harassing me about reading the book is that one story line focuses on a set of twins. Twins are freaky and weird and a bit of an obsession for me and I'll read just about any book that features the multiples. It makes lots of sense that twins feature prominently in Chaon's book, too, since the theme is identity. Without giving away too much of the story, how do you know who you are? Say you don't have your name. Are you the same person? What if I weren't named Liz? Wouldn't I be a totally different person if I went by, say, Stephanie? I would have missed out on all of the elementary school "lizard" names. And people named Liz, in my experience, are smart asses. Nice, vapidly sweet Elizabeths are usually shortened to Beth. I am not a Beth. So twins further complicate self-identification. Here's your carbon copy(if you're identical, but to a lesser extent the same holds true for fraternals), yet you are two distinct people. At the same time, though, you cannot separate your identity from that of your twin. Twins know each other before they even meet their mother and they grow up with a mirror image of themselves against which to measure. Your life is a jumbled mess of identity politics. It's fascinating...and weird...and perfect for Chaon's book.

So, confession, I am a twin. I sometimes hate it, but I cannot imagine my life otherwise, and I hate to think of a world in which my twin no longer exists. I look at her and marvel that we're even siblings (she's an aerospace engineer) and I try to imagine what I would be like if I had followed her course in life. I still respond to her name when someone calls it because growing up people constantly confused us even though we're fraternal and she's friggin' blonde for crying out loud. More often we were just "the Sullivan twins." So I personally related to the parts of AWAIT YOUR REPLY that deal with twin brothers on different paths, seeking each other and running away. What if my twin were a hustler, or a Broadway singer, or Lindsey Lohan? Wouldn't I have a different identity if she were someone else? (The answer is yes.)

Dan Chaon is a terrific writer. I can't emphasize this point enough. This book works on so many levels--literary exploration, character study, thriller--and both Gianna and I are giddily anticipating the publication in August. AWAIT YOUR REPLY may be the best book I read this year.


  1. would you still be the evil twin, if i had been Lindsay Lohan?

  2. Hi, Liz and Gianna: Richard and Cody from Square Books told me about your blog post, and I just wanted to say thanks! Gianna, I hope you got your signed copy.