Author Dan Chaon has long been interested in identity — both the true essence of a person and the front a person can put up, whether by hiding behind Internet anonymity or exploiting the idea of a clean slate by moving to a new place. Characters' identities and the ways they manipulate them are central to his latest book, Await Your Reply, his first in five years.
"I found what I was doing was evoking some of the anxieties I had about identity when I was in high school and college," he says of the characters' relationships to self. "One of them came from being adopted. I think another came from being the first in my family who went to college. I grew up in a pretty rural place. Neither of my parents finished high school. I [finished high school and] went to a fairly ritzy place, Northwestern University, and made a lot of adjustments to my persona, trying to fit into a world I wasn't used to, as I think a lot of my characters do."
Await Your Reply starts with three separate story lines about identity theft, shady behavior and various forms of running away. One story is about a boy who learns that he's adopted and goes to work as a computer and credit-card thief for his father, who he thought was his uncle. Another is about a runaway girl from Ohio. A third character is searching for a supposedly schizophrenic twin who's been on the run 10 years, changing identities the whole time.
What all the characters have in common is some barrier between themselves and what could be understood as their true identities. But Chaon notes that while those barriers create alienation, the concept of the American dream is largely rooted in being able to escape one's past. "It goes for Don Draper," he says, referring to a character from the cable drama Mad Men who keeps his orphan past a secret. "It also goes for The Great Gatsby."
Chaon was an early Internet user, exploring an anonymous relationship with the world on the "free net" while working at Case Western Reserve University in the early '90s. "I was interested in the phenomenon of anonymity," says Chaon. "Part of the attraction, if you spend a lot of time on the Internet, is the ways you can create a fluidity to your persona. Also the way people troll their way through sites for the fun of being someone else or being an evil person."
The message is the importance of real and long-term connection.
"What ties us to the world is our connection to flesh-and-blood people that you can't really fool like you can someone you don't know as well or only virtually," says Chaon. "The importance of knowing people over a long period if time is really central to being a whole person."