Coping with the Uncomfortable in Dan Chaon’s "Stay Awake" Stories

In a Nutshell

These stories will turn your brain inside out and you’ll spend days trying to put it back together again… In a good way.

The Whole Enchilada

Reading Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake was one of the most disquieting reading experiences I’ve had in a long time… and one I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the odd, the sad, the philosophical and psychologically sideways–or anyone who simply feels they need their reading life shaken up a bit. Each of these twelve stories draws you into the pre- and post-tragedy experience of the main character, brings you just shy of a crystalline point of enlightenment, and then leaves you with one foot over the dark edge of an abyss, wondering whether you should back away or jump off.

The journey I took when reading Chaon’s stories was not unlike the journey of loss and acceptance each of the characters seems to struggle with; although I didn’t realize the parallel until later. The first one or two stories I read left me disturbed and perturbed, but energized and focused; they were a small wake-up call, warning me that this would not be a book of neatly told tales, with all the loose ends tied nicely in a bow. I moved eagerly onto the next story… and the next… each one of them followed a common thread: A character struggling to cope with loss–the loss of a child, of a parent, of a relationship, of an ideal of self. The stories are told with no adherence to the laws of chronology, with the past and present both existing at once in the mind of the character and in the telling of the tale. After the 5th or 6th story I began to get angry. Why couldn’t just one of the stories have a clear ending? Why did so many of the characters seem apathetic or confused? What was the point of tying the timeline in knots as Chaon did?

It wasn’t until I reached the last few stories that I gained a sense of acceptance of–and appreciation for–the techniques Chaon was using. The discomforting thoughts of the characters, the abrupt and loose endings to the stories, all of this served to keep my curiosity piqued and my senses sharpened. I began searching the narrative for any signals these characters might be sending; much the way I would dissect the actions of a friend about whom I was worried. I also began to see the common thread running through each of the stories; the way each character is–in different and varied ways–trying to tell their tale of tragedy or loss, and by doing so trying to make sense of something that cannot make sense. Eventually I began to understand that of course these stories must all end abruptly, with the reader staring uncomfortably into the depths of an abyss; that is the only truth of tragedy and loss, any other ending smacks of insincerity or pandering.

The thought-provoking themes aren’t the only thing to appreciate about Chaon’s stories; his clean and subtle prose is as enjoyable as his subject matter is unsettling. One of my favorite lines is from the story “Slowly We Open Our Eyes,” where you’ll find this delightful glimpse into the mind of the main character:

“Things had turned bad for O’Sullivan in Chicago, and he had decided to make a new start of things out west. O’Sullivan liked the sound of this sentence, its muscular clarity… O’Sullivan also liked the idea of people calling him ‘O’Sullivan,’ though for most of his life he had been known by his first name, Donald, or Don, or Donnie, all of which struck him as rather small and petty.”

The story “Long Delayed, Always Expected” includes one woman’s beautiful and heartbreaking description of how her relationship with her distant ex-husband changes (in many ways for the better) after he receives a debilitating brain injury; while the storytelling in the harrowing “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands.” is so riveting that it is impossible to stop reading, even when you want to shield your eyes against what you see is coming.

Chewing on these stories long after I had finished them had me contemplating the question: what is the purpose of literature? Is it to play into our fantasies and comfort us in our ignorance, or is it to push us out of our comfort zone and make us think and grow? If the answer is the latter (which I think it is) then Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake stories definitely fall under the category of good literature. They may not comfort or console, but they open our eyes to a truth that surrounds us every moment, one that is always just one unlucky step away.

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2 thoughts on “Coping with the Uncomfortable in Dan Chaon’s "Stay Awake" Stories

  1. Okay, I skimmed because I have this one but haven't started it yet. I liked Chaon's Await Your Reply, although it left me a tad confused at one point. I am okay with being uncomfortable and I actually prefer it to a cozy read. I need books to keep me on my toes otherwise I don't feel as if I've grown as a reader. I can't wait to dive in now that I saw this post.

  2. This was the first book by Chaon I had ever come across, but it has inspired me to find more by him. A lot of people have mentioned that they really liked his "Await Your Reply," so I'm thinking I may have to find that one and give it a try… although I think I may wait a bit before I do; I could burn out on too much discomfort of this kind all at once.

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