Dan Chaon opens his new collection of stories with an epigraph from Raymond Carver
: "Whatever this was all about, it was not a vain attempt--journey." This is pretty opaque stuff from Carver, a writer not much given to mystification. But it strikes just the right note for Chaon's assembly of characters, a group vaguely unsettled by life, trying to make the best of it. First and foremost, this is a book beset by moms. You get the feeling that the characters in Among the Missing
never really had a chance to figure out the world, with these cryptic, uncommunicative women to care for them. In the title story, for example, a car is discovered at the bottom of a local lake, with an entire family drowned inside. The college-age narrator, however, is preoccupied by the more mundane puzzle of his parents' relationship. "Somehow," he recounts, "they'd stayed married for twenty years, and then, abruptly, somehow they'd decided to give up. It didn't quite make sense, and I looked at them, for a minute aware of the other mystery in my life. 'Do you want some soup?' my mother asked, as if I were a customer."
That's about as much as you'll ever get out of one of Chaon's mothers: soup. When not fielding their aging parents' passivity, these characters seem to spend a lot of time grappling with ghosts. The "missing" of the title story are, literally, gone. In "Safety Man," a widow comes to rely on one of those inflatable dolls meant to intimidate intruders. In "Prosthesis," a young wife and mother falls for a stranger with a missing arm; meanwhile, she watches her son grow up and away from her, "disappearing into his own thoughts and feelings." In the end, Chaon is the rare writer who deserves comparison to Carver: both write an affectless prose that takes on a surprisingly emotional life of its own. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
In the 12 quietly accomplished stories of his second collection, Chaon explores the complicated geography of human relationships, from the unintentional failures and minute betrayals of daily existence to the numbing grief caused by abandonment, disappearance or death. Specific and disquieting absences an uncle who killed himself, a mother who vanished, a friend who was kidnapped haunt the protagonists, and a series of metaphoric and literal stand-ins take the place of what's missing. In "Safety Man," a dummy intended for crime deterrence propped in the passenger seat, it looks like a male companion becomes a kind of surrogate husband for a young widow, and for her daughters, an inflatable father; in "I Demand to Know Where You're Taking Me," a woman caring for her incarcerated brother-in-law's macaw comes to loathe the bird, its ugly talk transforming it into a symbol of everything wrong and incomprehensible about him. By and large, Chaon's characters are citizens of the emotional hinterlands, lonely even when surrounded: "How did people go about falling in love, getting married, having families, living their lives?" Even those who think they know the answers recognize their powerlessness, such as the father who, looking into his son's eyes, thinks, "I am aware that hatred is a definite possibility at the end of the long tunnel of parenthood, and I suspect that there is little one can do about it." And yet these stories are neither morbid nor even particularly melancholic. Singularly dedicated to an examination of all the profundity and strangeness of the quotidian, they are, in their best moments, unsettling, moving, even beautiful. (July 3)Forecast: A jacket blurb by Lorrie Moore and a five-city author tour may help sell this understated collection, which will be respectfully reviewed but may be overlooked on bookstore shelves.
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