YOU REMIND ME OF ME
By Dan Chaon
Ballantine, $24.95, 352 pages
REVIEWED BY MERIN WEXLER
In his epigraph to “Howard’s End,” E.M. Forster wrote, “Only connect” — which is to say that at the end of the day human relationships are the only things we have that matter.
Dan Chaon, in his stunning first novel, “You Remind Me of Me,” takes that premise and explores what happens when the bonds of human connection have been all but lost, when kinship has been decimated, and when people become so isolated and separated from their sense of self that they live like fugitives, in their own kind of autistic state, impenetrable and alone.
The novel begins with a series of seemingly disparate and unrelated incidents in discrete chapters, almost like set pieces. In 1977, in South Dakota, a Doberman pinscher brutally attacks and disfigures a six-year-old called Jonah.
Meanwhile in Nebraska, Troy, all of 10, is left minding his toddler cousin while the drug-dealing adults in the house are continually stoned.
In the next chapter it’s 1966, and a pregnant teenager reluctantly enters a maternity home with a plan to give up her baby.
Finally, in 1977, a six-year-old boy disappears from his grandmother’s backyard.
What eventually emerges, however, is that these characters are in fact very much related. Troy, the de facto babysitter, is the baby born — and given away — in the maternity home. The boy attacked by the Doberman is his younger half-brother, and the teenage girl in the maternity home, Nora, is their mother. Thus Troy and Jonah are half-brothers.
Much of the novel follows the search of Jonah for human connection — any connection at all, for he is the most damaged of the characters in this book. As a child, he was barraged by his mother’s grief and self-hatred for giving away her firstborn.
Not surprisingly, that child, Troy, becomes the object of Jonah’s obsession. Jonah becomes determined to find him — stalking him, really — as if by finding his lost brother, Jonah will save himself.
Only he has no idea how to interact with people. He lives in what can only be described as a pathological detachment, compulsively fabricating lies about himself and his past. He has no self. The best he can do is study people he assumes are his age, “to know what he should be like.”
When in the course of the novel he does establish a friendship, in truth an acquaintance that eventually sours, that friend is really “just another vessel he could project himself into.”
In a turn of plot well earned and fully realized, Jonah goes so far as to commit a kidnapping. Fueled by fantasy and obsession, he literally attempts to steal a self, in order to acquire the identity he has come to know he lacks. In the end, he finds an identity of his own — somewhat — though not in the way he might expect.
In that respect, he is like his biblical namesake: spiritually bereft, rejected by men, he is swallowed whole, then marginally spared.
Troy fares slightly better, in part because he is spared the relationship with Nora, whose mothering skills are almost too painful to read. Yet Troy grows up the son of an alcoholic, the husband of an addict, a bartender by profession, and a drug dealer by trade.
At the price of nearly losing custody of his son, and on one of the novel’s few and meager points of redemption, he comes to realize that the past, though “invasive and spooky,” is not something he can escape.
Though raised in different homes with different parents, both Jonah and Troy get stuck in the familiar cycles of addiction, abandonment and abuse, much of which sadly gets reenacted across four generations, from the brothers’ grandfather to Troy’s son.
This may be well-trod territory for contemporary fiction, yet this novel is a standout. Why? In part because of the writing, which is both commanding and exquisite, with the same precision of detail that won Mr. Chaon such acclaim for his story collection, “Among the Living.”
Mr. Chaon has a way of exploring the basest of emotions with absolute veracity yet without melodrama. His characters, while extremely complicated, are emotionally and psychologically complete. They are fully human, and as a narrator, Mr. Chaon stands aside from them without judgment.
Moreover, the structure of the novel serves the story well. It is pieced together like a puzzle, the chapters shifting across time. In all, 36 years are covered, and by moving freely among them, Mr. Chaon reminds us of the timelessness of the unconscious, and the enduring pain of intergenerational loss.
The past lives on in the present, and the present is rooted in the past. To varying degrees, here are four generations of fatherless sons. As for whether nature or nurture determines our fate, the question is moot; Mr. Chaon seems to say it’s both.
The resolution in this story is hard-earned yet tentative enough to be truthful. Thankfully, Mr. Chaon does not leave his characters transformed. The mysteries of where we come from and how we get here are too great for that.
Even Nora, in the midst of labor preceding Jonah’s birth, wonders, “It’s hard to believe that this is how it’s done. That this is how we get here into the world, by accident or design, the microscopic pieces of ourselves borne by fluids and blood and growing into a tiny kingdom of cells inside someone else’s body. It seems so difficult to become alive.”
Ultimately, Jonah and Troy are not transformed, though in the eyes of the law, at least, they are reformed. Spiritually they are left posing the questions that we are all left to pose: how to live in the now, how to separate from the past, how to be honest, and how to love. Mr. Chaon doesn’t give us the answers. Like his characters, we must look for them ourselves.
Merin Wexler’s recent volume of stories, “Save Yourself,” will be issued in paperback by Picador this August.