My favorite constellation has always been The Seven Sisters, The Pleiades. When you look directly at the stars, they are difficult to make out and you can perhaps only see four of them clearly. Look just to the side of them and suddenly all seven of the stars shine with a newfound brightness. Look back and again, they recede.
Dan Chaon’s first novel, You Remind Me of Me
, evokes that star group. The outlines of tragedy throughout the book are constantly hovering just past the edge of your sight, just beyond your wish to believe what you’ve seen, just outside the limits of how far you hope the characters will take their mistakes. An early version of this story appeared in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2005
in a first-person version, though for the novel Chaon has jettisoned that for a limited third-person alternating between characters. It was this gripping excerpt that made me want to track down the novel and read further.
At the very beginning, I was a bit disappointed that the book wasn’t in the first person anymore. Chaon had written in such a savagely gripping voice, that of Jonah Doyle, his face hideously scarred from being attacked by his mother’s Doberman, that I wanted more. More incisive psychological insight, bitterly skewed yet a penetrating view of the world, the outsider who spares no one, not even himself.
Yet, how can you not be pulled in by a book with an opening like this: Jonah was dead for a brief time before the paramedics brought him back to life. He never talks about it, but it’s on his mind sometimes, and he finds himself thinking that maybe it’s the central fact of the rest of his life, maybe it’s what set his future into motion. He thinks of the fat cuckoo clock in his grandfather’s living room, the hollow thump of the weights and the dissonant guitar thrum of springs as the little door opened and the bird popped out; he thinks of his own heart, which was stopped when they got to him and then suddenly lurched forward, no one knew why, it just started again right around the time they were preparing to pronounce him deceased.
The story takes form, following three young boys, Troy Timmens and Jonah at first in the past, and then in the present, along with the story of Troy’s son Loomis playing in his grandmother’s backyard up to the point where Loomis disappears, kidnapped. We also, as a kind of counterpoint background, learn about Jonah’s mother and her youth, her early marriage, and her pregnancies, as well as her eventual death, haunted by her past mistakes.
What Chaon does very effectively is to chop time up, rearrange the standard chronology, and he does so in a fashion that feels organically right without the kind of stilted going for effect quality so many less able writers exude as they scribble through the motions for their postmodern chops. Visits to the past are like extended pregnant pauses, shifts to other characters obscurely but importantly advance the plot we had been following just seconds before, and the preconceptions Chaon forced us into coming to on our own are quite neatly dismantled.
The writing is smart without ever actually featuring any smart characters and scenes pass with a cringe inducing kind of foreboding. When Jonah moves away from the small town to Chicago, he makes a friend through work, but all the investment in the relationship is on his side. There is a lovely incrementally increasing desperation on Jonah’s end while his “friends” become more and more repulsed. “Thinking about it later, he realized he’d crossed a line he didn’t even know was there,” Chaon writes quite simply, stating a transgression we’ve all made, overstaying our welcome in relationship.
This scene almost had me crying in both recognition and pathos: The more painful it became, the more Jonah wanted them to laugh or nod or say “ah” in the way they used to. ‘I wonder how long we’ll know each other,” Jonah had said at last, after the pause in the conversation had seemed to settle over them like a layer of soil. He said it cheerfully, trying to sound like he was just musing. But Holiday looked at him guiltily. “Oh, Jonah,” she said reproachfully, “we’ll always know each other. Once you meet someone, you don’t unmeet them.”
There is a kind of masochistic urge forcing his hand as this friendship dies, a quietly desperate sense that if only I were to humiliate myself completely, make an abject spectacle of myself, they would understand how much they mean to me. It is friendship written as if it were love itself, as it so very often is.
Because of his painful vulnerability, his disconnected sense of identity, and the quest that is at the heart of this novel, Jonah is the book’s raw, exposed heart. Troy, similarly to Jonah, is likewise a bared nerve, fretted upon painfully by his circumstances, though trying to tough it out. A middling to failed drug dealer, he has lost custody of his son Loomis after being arrested and doing time under house arrest for his dealing. A bartender in a small Nebraska town, Troy hides his more sensitive side from his joking friends and is completely unprepared for how Jonah will completely upend his existence.
Even Chaon’s more minor characters, the serene Loomis; his satisfied and distracted grandmother; Jonah’s suicidal mother, riven with self-loathing; are all drawn with pin prick accuracy and a wealth of minor details. Each moment in their lives is drawn with a kind of assured precision, almost pointillist in its coolly detached isolation, yet filling out a much greater tapestry by the book’s conclusion. This is the kind of novel in which all the characters do things you just know they’re going to do, but you hope against all reason that they won’t — you cringe knowing they will. It is the kind of book in which you love all the characters, despite their flaws, often because of their flaws. They are like human beings: looking too closely makes them shy, hides them from you; seeing them off balance, askance, illuminates.
And even through all of this, even past what you can’t see, the characters earn your trust, earn your (grudging sometimes) respect, and exist as almost wholly human. Isn’t that what we want from literature?
For a complete disclosure, I have to say that I studied under Dan Chaon while I was pursuing my master’s degree in creative writing. The class was enjoyable, his teaching it accidental (his wife had a family emergency that took her out of state for a couple months and he filled in), and the reading list was engaging. I enjoyed my time there. The book is a wonderful experience nevertheless.