It’s what you carve from a piece of wood that makes it a cello.
Scallop more deeply, and you have a viola. Draw a bow over its strings, and the instrument sings through its loss. We have come to think of this sound as beautiful, and it is: a vibration passing through what is missing.
How unnerving, though, to read a fiction writer whose stories work this way. Poets are always writing elegies - even to the living. Dan Chaon, novelist, short story writer, and Midwesterner with a broken soul, resides among the dead. He is the modern day John Cheever of mourning.
“Among the Missing,’’ his debut collection, drew its power from totems of loss. Missing children, runaway spouses, departed lovers; their ghosts and the people who see them fill Chaon’s books with eerie naturalism. A car found at the bottom of a lake with a whole family still inside. A widow who uses a dummy to deter burglars grows spookily attached to it.
Each of these stories performed a neat trick - drawing the reader’s attention so finely to a glitch in reality one didn’t notice the story’s awful poignancy until its last lines. That Chaon could perform this feat 12 times in a row was nothing short of miraculous.
Still, an obsession becomes a compulsion when joy recedes. But there is nothing even remotely weary about Chaon’s new book, “Stay Awake,’’ which reprises some of the themes of “Among the Missing,’’ and, in most cases, deepens them.
Set across the Midwest in a vague present tense, “Stay Awake’’ unfolds in an insomniac world of the world at night. Grocery stores in the gloaming; hushed voices in hospitals; train stations after the last arrival pulls in. Chaon describes these blue hours - and the lost souls awake within them - with poetic precision.
In “I Wake Up,’’ a young man recalls his trip to Cleveland to meet his foster parents. The train pulls in at 2 in the morning, not exactly a normal hour for a 12-year-old. “[The conductor] looked down as if he knew some terrible secret about me, stern and sorrowful the way old workingmen get in the years before they retire.’’
The boy does have a secret. His mother is a convicted murderer, and he has been having conversations with one of his birth sisters over the telephone, unbeknownst to his kind, Midwestern foster parents. Even if they knew they may not care. They took in a foster child after their own son died.
Although these symmetries occur and recur through “Stay Awake,’’ they never arrive with the frisson of a trick. After all, it’s how parents work: A child dies, and they grieve their way into having another one.
Mistakes are made, and if we live long enough to atone, we sometimes imagine that old self as dead, gone, buried. In Chaon’s world, however, it never is. That past comes back with a ghostly vengeance. One of the collection’s finest pieces, “The Bees,’’ tracks an ex-alcoholic’s slow unraveling as he begins to wonder about the fate of his firstborn son and the boy’s mother. The man’s memories become a physical symptom: He begins suffering all the guilt and paranoia and blackouts of a drunk, as if reaping just rewards for his cruel abandonment.
This is not a book to pick up lightly if you are even moderately paranoid or conscience-wracked. Guilt and shame blow through this book like gusty accelerants. In one story, a woman begins sleeping with her brain-damaged ex-husband. The sex is better than ever. “Oh my God I’m a monster,’’ she thinks. “[N]o one must ever know about this.’’
Shuttling between such thoughts and actual crimes, Chaon reveals how similar terror and shame are. They rise up the body like smoke from a chimney, and in some cases here propel characters into stupid decisions. The hero of sorts of “St. Dismas’’ kidnaps his ex-girlfriend’s son. The protagonist of “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow’’ fails to attend a baby’s funeral.
Like so many of us, Chaon’s characters are often at a loss as to how to act.
They’re searching, even if through the dark sheet of a heavy depression. Their loneliness has made them weird, superstitious, and porous. Thoughts that normally remain thoughts become actions. Signs come to them in t he ways one doesn’t find strange when life has smacked you hard upside the head.
In “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted,’’ a young man living in the home where his parents killed themselves finds strange notes on his arm. He wonders whether it is part “of that terrible message the world had been trying to telegraph.’’
The problem with turning a story upon a stitch in the fabric of reality is that eventually the story needs to end. Foreboding is a fabulous feeling in fiction, but its climax is almost never as pleasurable as what comes before. Chaon, like Ian McEwan or Philip K. Dick and other writers of the creepy and clever tribe, occasionally struggles.
As heartbreaking and haunting as “The Bees’’ is, its ending feels somewhat over the top. Other stories end too ambiguously, or too hard.
It is a problem of horror writing in general, a genre where one could shelve “Stay Awake.’’
Hobbled by such endings, “Stay Awake’’ never stumbles, though. There are few writers - Lorrie Moore comes to mind, Joy Williams, too - who know the exact pulse of such altered states. Here is the high, lonesome tune of trauma in the aftermath, of loss in the single digit hours of the morning. It is horrifying, and in Chaon’s hands, eerily beautiful.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.’’