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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Drift: Stories by Victoria Patterson – A Book Review

Drift has edge, and, in the beginning, this edge made it a breathtaking—almost dangerous—read.  However, as the book concluded, its edge started to feel forced, thus negating its overall effect.

Patterson has successfully written a captivating collection of intertwined stories taking place in Newport Beach (of all places).  Most of the stories star recurring female protagonists, and most deal with very real issues of common life, even if in an uncommon locale.   Patterson pulls no punches, and this bluntness, initially, is refreshing and creates engaging—though not necessarily likable—characters.

A photo of Patterson smiling along a beach is embedded within the back cover of Drift.  She is a normal, attractive woman with a nice smile.  Her apparent affability unconsciously biased me, and so when male-on-male oral sex, drug use, and child abuse occurs, I was shocked.  I’ve always believed it’s important to separate the artist from the art, and I’d forgotten my own cardinal rule.  Patterson has edge—real edge—in the early stages of her collection.  It was placed perfectly within the pacing and tone of her stories, and while jarring, it didn’t strike me as awkward.  Unfortunately, about three-quarters of the way through Drift, that edge began to feel forced and even a bit sensationalistic.  It drew so much of my attention that I couldn’t lose myself in the tales any longer.

Even with that being said, it’s important to note that Patterson IS a very good writer.  While I question her plot choices near the end of the book, her stories remained tight and well-written throughout.  She has an excellent sense of pace and delivery, and her sentences flow with ease.  In other words, no matter what the subject, this is a person who KNOWS how to write well.

Anyone interested in the short story genre would do well to read Drift.  Though mostly focused upon female protagonists, there’s absolutely no reason why a male wouldn’t also benefit from these stores—perhaps a male could even learn a thing or two from the female perspective.  Furthermore, any aspiring writers should take advantage of this author who knows how to deliver edgy stories occurring within the mostly normal aspects of real life.