No face in the mirror

Missing identity in Dan Chaon's debut novel

| June 24, 2004

In the opening sentence of You Remind Me of Me, we are told that the main character “was dead for a brief time before the paramedics brought him back to life.”

In a small South Dakota home, a few days after his sixth birthday, Jonah Doyle is playing with his Doberman pinscher, Elizabeth. During the hours before his mother returns from work, while his grandfather naps, and locked behind the bathroom door, there comes a moment when “Elizabeth became not-Elizabeth” and the dog attacks the boy.

If the moment seems only a small, if slightly disturbing, instance in a child’s life, think again. For one thing, there is stunning clarity to Dan Chaon’s prose—a vivid and hypnotic sense of line-by-line timing that renders even the most vicious of animal attacks with a quiet, pulsating tone. “Later he would think that Elizabeth had gone crazy. He didn’t want to think that he was her tormentor, that whatever he’d done to her, she’d finally had enough. That she bit him and liked it, thinking at last.”

For another, the attack will end fatally. Jonah’s grandfather will beat the dog to death and Jonah—albeit briefly—will lie dead on the bathroom floor. Though his death is transient, the attack will scar him irrevocably. “He never talks about it, but it’s on his mind sometimes, and he finds himself thinking that maybe it’s the central fact of the rest of his life, maybe it’s what set his future in motion.”

Thus begins Chaon’s inquiry, investigating the peculiar attachments we often have to what we imagine is missing from our lives. An author who has already established himself for his melancholy and poetic short stories (his collection Among the Missing was nominated for the National Book Award), Chaon manages to grasp something profoundly ungraspable long enough to analyze in this, his first novel. There might seem nothing more obvious, more tangible and palpable than the people in our lives. And yet they elude us completely. Jonah grows into a timid loner, one who fervently believes that his life would be different if only he could master some form of connection with another person. He clings to the sense that his life would be different if only he could retrieve that missing link.

Jonah’s mother, Nora, is a ghost-like presence in his life. The novel slowly reveals her to be a distant and desperately unhappy woman and mother. If the child cannot put a name to his mother’s malady, he is at least acutely aware of the peripheral position he holds in her life. She puts a padlock on her bedroom door to keep him out; she leaves the circumstances of his birth in shadow; she refers only elusively to the child she gave up for adoption five years before Jonah was born. Perhaps most heartbreaking of all, Nora admits—if only to herself—that she would have fervently loved Jonah if only he hadn’t survived the savage dog attack: “Did he know that she could have endured his death more easily than his survival, his constant, living reminder of her failures as a mother, as a person?”

After Nora’s early death at 43, Jonah leaves Little Bow, South Dakota, in search of the half-brother his mother gave away as a teenager. But like any novel, You Remind Me of Me is chiefly concerned with that enigma of the self.

A character in a novel will often resemble an ordinary person; it is some action that sets them apart. Through action, that character steps forth from the repetitive universe of the everyday, where each person resembles every other person. It is through action that we distinguish ourselves from others and become individuals. Jonah, in his early life, resembles no one—not with the facial scar left by Elizabeth, not with the ruptured family from which he came. In finding his brother, Jonah hopes his own true image will be revealed, not in a manner that distinguishes his difference, but rather one that will show that he, too, can be just like everyone else—or even anyone else. He will come to learn that the image revealed will bear no resemblance to anything he had expected or intended. You Remind Me of Me is not a book of simple revelations. It is one of profound loss and transformation.

The novel, spanning almost 30 years, explores the mysterious connections these individuals have with each other. In this manner, we get to know Jonah’s half-brother long before he does. A bartender and reformed drug dealer on parole in St. Bonaventure, Nebraska, Troy Timmens has a broken family of his own. Troy has a son named Loomis, whose mother, Carla, is nowhere to be found. Loomis, with a peculiar adult-like manner that resembles the childhood version of Jonah, lives with Carla’s mother, who refuses Troy any visitation rights. Thus the novel gives us one more ruptured family to consider.

Certainly, at one level, You Remind Me of Me explores the case of one adoption and its enormous ramifications on one disjointed family. On another level, the book beautifully explores the trap that human existence often is. We are born without having asked to be, locked in a body we never chose, and destined to make something of this life. Often mournful, rendering loneliness darkly and poetically, Chaon’s debut novel deftly portrays the challenges of fate and circumstance. It is a novel that asks questions of identity, rendered in such a way that its words resonate long after the novel is done.

arts@missoulanews.com

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