Dan Chaon: You Remind Me Of Me

Dan Chaon: You Remind Me Of Me

It's rare when a movie improves upon a novel, especially a novel as beautifully wrought as Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter. But Atom Egoyan's 1997 adaptation reworks Banks' already-innovative structure into something that cuts closer to the bone. The author ordered his story about a fatal small-town tragedy chronologically, but relayed each chapter through the fixed perspectives of a different character. For his part, Egoyan fractured the timeline into pieces, not only revealing information as it reached its greatest emotional resonance, but also mirroring the upended lives of the townspeople.

In the same spirit, reading Dan Chaon's heartbreaking debut novel You Remind Me Of Me is like picking up little shards of glass that will never again make a whole. Chaon earned a National Book Award nomination for his 2001 short-story collection Among The Missing, and the opening chapters of You Remind Me Of Me have the quality of a story-cycle, with little character vignettes that hiccup freely back and forth through time. The effect is deliberately disorienting, but Chaon slowly and confidently ties each of the dangling narrative strands into what might have been a family, had fate and dire circumstance not played such a devastating role. Spanning three decades and as many generations, the book finally emerges as a portrait of two forcibly estranged brothers who are cast off into equally lonely, unfortunate trajectories.

Though Chaon chose to open the book with a defining incident 10 years later, the straightened timeline begins in 1966, when pregnant teenager Nora Doyle opts to put her first-born up for adoption. The decision has profound ramifications later, when her second son Jonah, a socially dysfunctional short-order cook, seeks out his long-lost brother Troy, a convicted drug dealer serving as a bartender while under house arrest. Scarred by a Doberman attack that nearly killed him as a child, Jonah has constructed his life around his absent brother, to the point where he speaks to new friends about a dear, imaginary sibling. Once he contrives to work with Troy at the Stumble Inn Bar & Grille, Jonah can't bring himself to tell him the truth about their relationship, but he goes to extreme lengths to make Troy happy.

With deep sensitivity and insight, Chaon examines flawed, ill-fated outcasts who can't escape their own weaknesses. At times, the writing suffers from literary preciousness, particularly in the endless descriptions of Jonah's symbolic scar, but Chaon compensates with evocative passages about the inner and outer aridness of prairie life. In the end, You Remind Me Of Me comes down to choices—the choices that these characters make, the choices made for them, and the negligible differences between the two.

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