Stay Awake by Dan Chaon – A Book Review

I’m a Dan Chaon fan.  His unusual ideas and interwoven plots are typically a pleasure to read.  It’s true that his work characteristically tackles difficult subject matter, but I’ve never been outright disturbed by his stories … until now.

For me, Stay Awake proved a grueling read.  Not because it’s badly written – that’s not the case at all.  Chaon is an excellent writer.  No, it’s because this book is dark – extremely dark.  Chaon’s too classy to go for the gratuitous.  It’s the suggestiveness within the book, those horrific details stated matter-of-factly that put me on edge.  Babies die.  Mother’s die.  Children die.  People get hurt.  People suffer.  And it’s not just one of the stories where these things happen … it’s all of them.

Perhaps it’s testament to Chaon’s skill that he consistently ravaged my nerves.  I’ve read stories such as these before, but they never felt so real … so … personal.  Chaon’s characters, though we barely know them at all, are living, breathing people that easily could live next door to us.  Maybe it’s because his characters are so universal that his writing dug so deep.  For an entire book, he reminds us that tragedy can strike at anytime to anyone.

So did I like the book?  No, quite honestly, I did not.  However, I like Dan Chaon very much, and I like virtually everything else he’s written very much.  For me to say I didn’t like Stay Awake is not an attack on the book itself, for I admit I am not being objective.  I admit the subject matter disturbed me and agitated my own fears.  As a result, I truly didn’t want to finish it (though I obviously did).

Stay Awake is well written.  It does everything from a technical standpoint that you would expect from a writer of Chaon’s caliber.  Its characters are identifiable and interesting.  Its plots are unusual and provocative.  It will probably trouble you.

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