Lucinda Rosenfeld with the New York Times was stuck by this novel’s bleakness. I was more struck with its cleverness. In fact, I think I’ll have a hard time conveying what an incredible novel it is.
At first, it seems to be a set of three stories about people who are not connected, but the connections begin to occur to you as you read it. Although the novel plays with time by relating incidents out of order, you eventually understand how the characters and the incidents are related.
Ryan is traveling to the hospital with his severed hand in an ice bucket. He has been holed up in a remote cabin in Michigan with his father Jay, but a violent incident has just occurred. Later, we learn that Ryan was a student at Northwestern University until he was contacted by Jay, who told him he was his real father–that the parents who raised him actually were his aunt and uncle. Ryan, feeling his life is a sham, has abandoned his school and parents and gone to work with his father as an identity thief.
Lucy has run off with her high school science teacher George, who has promised her they are going to make a lot of money. Lucy has been dying to leave her hick life in a hick Ohio town, as she sees it. She is dismayed, however, when they arrive in Nebraska at an abandoned motel shaped like a lighthouse near a dried-up reservoir and take up residence in a creepy old house the description of which reminds me of the one behind the Bates Motel.
Miles has been searching for his twin brother Hayden for ten years. After a period of extreme mental illness in high school, Hayden disappeared. Miles has never been sure whether his brother’s condition was real or faked, because Miles and his brother used to spend a lot of their time creating elaborate fantasies. Now, every once in awhile, his life working in a mail-order magic store is interrupted by a paranoid and semi-coherent letter from Hayden offering Miles clues of his whereabouts, which sends him off in pursuit. Each time he arrives late, after his brother has left the area, and finds that his brother has been using a different name, working a different job. Now Miles is driving to the farthest reaches of Canada to try to find Hayden.
The novel is constructed like a puzzle, providing the pieces, but jumbled up, and building a sense of suspense and dread. You become completely absorbed in reconstructing the events and connecting the stories. You begin to wonder what has happened to some of the characters, who seem to have disappeared.
My only small problem with the novel is a key incident, where a character is lured to Africa by the classic Nigerian Letter scam, which offers a huge amount of money for helping a stranger get a larger sum out of the country. This scam is well known on the Internet, and I in fact ran into it in letter form about 20 years ago. I have always been incredulous that anyone would fall for it, although I realize that people still do. But the character who falls for it in this novel is one who has long used the Internet for identity theft. It seems as if he would be likely to know of the scam, even though his character is one who seems compelled to believe in the fictions he has created.
This novel is about identity and its relationship to death. Various characters take on different identities throughout the book. In doing so, they come to view their old selves as dead. It is almost as though Chaon views identity and selfhood as being entirely fluid–or perhaps his message is that this is a change wrought by our uses of the Internet.