Ballantine: 328 pp., $25
Dan Chaon is a rarity among his contemporaries, a respected literary author not afraid to dip one foot into the murky waters of the macabre. In short stories such as "I Demand to Know Where You're Taking Me" (from his National Book Award-nominated collection "Among the Missing"), Chaon proved himself capable of plumbing the depths of his characters while raising the hairs on the back of his readers' necks.
His new novel, "Await Your Reply," is a riveting thriller, chock-full of plot twists, and a sober meditation on the erosion of identity in the age of technology. Fair warning, though: The book opens with a scene of flagrant brutality.
In fact, if there's one place where the novel leans too heavily on the tropes of genre writing, it's in these early chapters. The cliffhangers feel too calculated, and Chaon, in an effort to goose the suspense, withholds so many basic facts that the reader winds up needlessly confused. It doesn't help that he has crafted a plot whose intricacies would dizzy Poe.
The book is composed of three strands. One traces the fate of Lucy Lattimore, an orphaned high school senior who alights with her mysterious history teacher, George Orson. It all seems quite glamorous, until they arrive at their destination: an abandoned motel in Nebraska that appears to have been borrowed from a Hitchcock film. Lucy's male counterpart in the second strand is Ryan, a feckless college kid who, upon discovering he's adopted, follows the man who claims to be his biological father into the netherworld of cyber scamming. The third plot tracks the hapless Miles, in his 30s, as he pursues his identical twin brother Hayden, a charismatic and mentally unstable drifter who has spent most of his life ricocheting from one identity to another.
Much of the pleasure of the book resides in the reader's attempts to figure out how these disparate stories fit together. There's a bristling momentum that develops, as in any great tale of suspense. But Chaon is up to something more ambitious here. He's seeking to recast that oldest of American dreams -- reinvention -- as a dark parable.
Appropriately, the odysseys begin as larks. "And he had been having fun, for the most part," Chaon observes of Ryan. "He loved traveling -- driving, flying, riding the Amtrak train -- a different city every week, a new name, a new personality that he could try out, a new role, as if each new trip were a movie he was starring in."
Lucy also agrees to assume a new identity, at the behest of her lover. But in doing so, she eventually runs up hard against the risks of abandoning her old life: "More and more, she was aware that Lucy Lattimore had left the earth. Already there was hardly anything left of her -- a few scraps of documents, birth certificate and social security card in her mother's drawer back in the old house. . . . The truth was, she had killed herself months ago. Now she was next to nothing: a nameless physical form that could be exchanged and exchanged and exchanged until nothing remained but molecules."
Chaon has made all this possible by selecting protagonists who are profoundly isolated. None of them seem to have loved their parents, or formed deep friendships. They are defined not by their passions but by a convenient form of alienation. I found it hard to feel emotionally invested in their fates. What I did feel as I read was something more limbic: a skin-prickling dread, a creeping sense that bad things were going to happen to folks who were in way over their heads.
I expect Chaon will be happy to hear this: "Await Your Reply" is an open tribute to his favorite horror and science fiction writers. But what separates his novel from the latest Stephen King tome is that he never resorts to supernatural shenanigans. He locates the source of terror within his characters' misguided dreams. He also writes with an eloquence rarely seen in the world of page-turners, whether he's describing "the faint scent of some mildly floral businesslike perfume" or the sensation of hope tightening within someone "like a warm, soft fist." The omnipresent cursors in this world don't just blink; they breathe.
If there's tenderness in the book, it reveals itself in those flickering moments when characters brush up against their own despair. Lucy, for instance, feels a "wavering shadow passing over her once again, all the different people she herself had wanted to become, all the sadness and anxiety that she had been trying not to think about now shifting above her like an iceberg."
Chaon uses Lucy, and the less fortunate Ryan, to suggest a haunting possibility: that modern life itself, with its technological abstractions and virtual identities, its frantic screens and false promises of prosperity, is already well on its way toward dehumanizing us as a species.
There is little doubt that Hollywood will snatch up "Await Your Reply" and set about refurbishing Chaon's elegant handiwork in a thick carapace of cliché. But the book itself will, and should, endure. It's a jolt of adrenaline with a strong dose of existential dread, an eerie snapshot of what we lose, and what we risk, when we turn away from those who love us.
Almond is the author of several books, including "Bang Your Heart," which will be published next year.