I read several books that I would describe as 'literary thrillers' this summer, purely by coincidence. There was Costello's Big If, Beauman's Boxer Beetle, one by Toby Litt that I've yet to review and this, by Dan Chaon. Of the four, this was easily the best. In fact it's one of the best books I've read all year. [amtap book:isbn=0345476034]
Chaon - pronouced Shawn - tracks three pairs of characters across an America where few people are who they appear to be and identities are shed and assumed with alarming ease and frequency. And Chaon picks some great locations for his story to unfold, among them an abandoned motel, a forgotten magic shop, an Arctic ice station and a cabin in the woods.
The book opens with Ryan being driven to hospital, his severed hand sitting, packed in ice, beside him and his father, Jay, behind the wheel. Before we can discover Ryan's fate the story switches to Lucy, eloping with George Orson, her lover and former teacher. No sooner has their journey begun than Chaon switches view again, this time alighting on Miles, heading to the arctic circle in the hope of finding his mentally disturbed twin brother, Hayden.
With Miles in place, we switch back to Ryan, then again to Lucy and so on in this fashion as Chaon gradually draws the three stories together. Miles teams up with Lydia, whose sister Rachel seems to have run away with Hayden. Ryan and his father are deep in an identity fraud racket, assuming false identities and moving money from one bank account to another. George Orson is trying to get some money from an enterprise that is probably not legal and soon he and Lucy have to assume false identities too.
Linking Ryan, Lucy and Miles is a sense of aimlessness, an inability to find a direction in life. All three find direction by latching onto someone more driven than themselves - Jay, George and Lydia, respectively. However, all three are, to an extent, led somewhere that they don't want to go.
Chaon controls his plot with masterful ease. He slips backwards and forwards in time, giving us enough information to feel like we're keeping up, while in fact he remains one step ahead. The finale is ingenious and certainly took me by surprise.
It's a great thriller but, as I said above, it has literary quality too. Chaon's characters are not merely pawns to be moved around the board in search of maximum tension, they are rounded people with believable emotions and motivations. Even the scene where Ryan loses his hand, which could be played for thrills, is delivered with freshness and genuine horror. We know that Ryan will lose his hand so Chaon is working without tension and instead makes the scene moving - a much more challenging task but one that he pulls off brilliantly.
There are occasional flaws - towards the end it starts to feel that Chaon has created a slightly implausible super-villain - but overall the book is a great success. It's dark and haunting.