Among the Missing (01 Edition)
by Dan Chaon
A review by C. P. Farley
In his essay "Against Epiphanies," Charles Baxter argues that "epiphanic endings,"
where a "character's experiences in a story [are] validated by a conclusive insight
or brilliant visionary stop-time moment," have “become a tic, a habit, among writers
(and editors) of literary fiction." Though satisfying, such insights rarely turn
out to be as profound as initially thought. Nonetheless, we’ve come to expect (and receive) a revelation at the end of every story: "that old insight train just keeps chugging into the station,
time after time."
I imagine Baxter reading Dan Chaon’s new collection, Among the Missing, with great pleasure. For there are no dramatic manifestations of Truth in these stories; essences never quite reveal themselves. Instead, Chaon’s characters are overwhelmed by ambiguity and uncertainty. They are brought face to face with life’s mysteries, and are left, like the rest of us, to puzzle and wonder. This is precisely what gives them such uncommon power. As the ongoing fascination with Jon-Benet Ramsey demonstrates, unsolved mysteries are far more powerful than solved ones. Though clear answers gratify, they don’t feed the imagination.
Dan Chaon rarely succumbs to easy answers. In his stories, deaths are unsolved, missing persons are never found, fears are not assuaged, absent fathers do not return. Instead, the reader is taken inside a character’s uncertainty, is brought to recognize their own vague longings in those of a young man unsettled by a child’s crying, their own culpability in the shadowy guilt felt by the best friend of a disappeared child, their own desperation in the rage a woman feels toward the mouthy parrot of her husband’s rapist brother.
In the near perfect "Big Me," which received a 2001 O. Henry Award, a grown man reminisces about how terrified he was as a boy by the suspicion that the creepy alcoholic next door was a cipher of the man he might become. The interplay between these two selves — the grown man puzzling over his former self and the young man who wrote angry letters to Big Me: "I hope you are not a failure. I hope you are happy." — is a brilliant, unsettling evocation of the inextricable tangle between who we are, who we might have been, and who we might become. It is also a perfect example of why Dan Chaon will likely outlast most writers of this particular revelation-obsessed moment: he understands that his job is not to explain reality, but to suggest its mysteries.