Book Talk: A Peek into Loss and Darkness with Dan Chaon

Thu Feb 9, 2012 4:01am EST
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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - In the world of Dan Chaon's stories, nothing is quite what it should be -- or perhaps it's the way it always was, and nobody saw it clearly before.

A widower finds cryptic messages on dollar bills blowing along the street. A man and his wife try to cope with having a baby that is born with two heads. Sleety nights invite images of skeletons flying through the air.

Written roughly over the course of a decade, the tales in "Stay Awake," Chaon's second short story collection, were inspired largely by his desire to try mixing elements of ghost and horror stories with literary fiction. They evoke comparison to classics such as those by Ray Bradbury, whom Chaon admires.

A National Book Award finalist whose wife, novelist Sheila Schwartz, died of cancer in 2008, Chaon describes the stories as also being about "loss and about dealing with loss...about being able to understand what continuing on means."

Q: What would you say is a common thread in these stories -- you mentioned loss, is there something else?

A: "I think the way that everyday life can become uncanny is a thread that ties things together. I think the feeling that seems to have grown large in the United States of something having gone off the rails and you're not quite sure where to pinpoint that having gone wrong. I feel that it's that mood of dread that I'm particularly interested in trying to capture."

Q: Can you elaborate?

A: "I think that there are times when we're just going about our daily business and, you know, driving to work or doing the dishes or whatever, and then there are those moments when you lift your head and there's a sense that something is strange. Or a sense that something is different that you haven't looked at in the right way up until that moment. My son and I were talking about this concept -- he's a biology major in college -- and he was talking about the concept of umwelt, which is about the semiotics of animals. A fish can only see the things that matter to a fish, so that if we're trying to understand fish consciousness or tick consciousness we have to understand what those creatures see. Humans are really the only animal that we know of, that has the ability to step outside the umwelt and look from a different perspective, or to see something that exists outside out of ordinary consciousness.   Continued...