When Dan Chaon's first novel, You Remind Me of Me, came out in 2004, I was working weekends at a little independent bookstore. I loved those days as a teenager, spending my shifts reading publication materials and trade magazines. I couldn't get enough of reading new book reviews and being "in the know" about the publishing and bookselling industries. One of the books I remember really making a mark, with all its positive reviews and surprising popularity for a piece of literary fiction, was Chaon's novel. But, like Marilynne Robinson's Gilead (which is another book everyone was freaking out about back then), I wanted to read the book post-hype. And like Gilead, it took me five years to get to that point.
So, I finally read You Remind Me of Me this week. And you know what? I'm already kind of regretting it. Because, you see, this book might just be the single most depressing piece of fiction I've ever read.
Here's the thing: I've read books that are much sadder - books full of death and war and tragedy. This book didn't have much of any of that. Also, as you all know, I really like sad books. But for some reason, You Remind Me of Me was a little too much of a mood-spoiler even for me. The characters' lives were so thematically hopeless and pathetic and crushing that I could hardly take it. Plus, it didn't help that Chaon did not add a single bright spot to divert my attention. The book was just a grinding, nonstop road of misery.
Obviously, I must have found the book compelling enough. I have no qualms about giving up on books I don't like in the middle, but I kept all the way to the end with this one. Partly that was from some idea that the book HAD to become happier. I thought there was no way Chaon could sustain this kind of pain for so long. But no, I was wrong. Somehow, the book became even more hopeless by the end. I also continued to read the book because Chaon's writing was occasionally very nice (although he's far too wordy for my taste in general) and because I appreciated the way he let the characters make their own dumb choices without interference on his part. That's a lot harder for a writer than most people realize.
Frankly, this book should have been right up my alley. It's about brothers (one given up for adoption, the other doomed to stay with his screwed-up mother) who don't meet until they are adults. It's about a father and son (the adopted brother and his little boy, who have the strongest and most loving relationship in the book). It even takes place in small prarie towns (like Gilead!). But I wasn't having it. The two brothers - adopted Troy and dysfunctional Jonah - have such unrelentingly depressing lives that I could hardly take it. I'm not saying that it's not realistic. It very much is. Yet, Chaon refuses again and again to let even the smallest smile cross the faces of his characters and his readers.
Anyway, this book hit the trifecta of sadness for me: failed mothers, doomed children, characters who literally don't have a single connection to the rest of the world. Those things depress the hell out of me. As I told my mom when I finished the book, "If there were some scenes of killing dolphins in here, it would have hit the trifecta!" At the end, my favorite character, Troy, does get a somewhat pleasant second chance at a better life. But nothing really turns out for anyone else. And even worse, I never found it in me as a sympathetic, sophisticated reader to understand the terrible, terrible decisions these people (particularly Jonah) kept making time and time again.
Critics liked Chaon's book because it was honest, well-written, and had a complicated story structure that moves across time and space. And truth is, Chaon had all these things going for him (particularly, in the structure, which ended on a surprisingly perfect place in time as the brothers' mother, Nora, is in labor with Jonah in 1971, tying the book together quite nicely). Yet, I'm now skeptical of all these critics. Because where they saw honesty in writing and subject, I found a strange genre I have now dubbed "misery porn." Because, holy shit, was this a big ball of depressing.
So now that I have all that off my chest, I'm going off to cleanse my palate with a trashy romance novel.