Among The Missing
by Dan Chaon
Faulkner was right when he said in Requiem for a Nun that, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This sentiment is taken to heart in this collection by Dan Chaon, as these twelve short stories all deal with the enigma of identity, the inability for one person to ever truly know another, and the strange paths that open up to us in the choices we make in life. Throughout these stories, the past, so much a source of identity and memory, serves as much as a bane to the characters as it is a blessing. Combining elements of tragedy and humor, these stories are a staggering testament to Chaon’s creativity and understanding of the troubled psyche of his characters.
All these stories center on those individuals who, like the title of the collection, remain “among the missing.” Yet, to be missing is an ambiguous state for Chaon. For example, there are those like the family in the title story, whose absence serves as the vehicle for the narrative to unfold. Their absence is merely indicative of the larger absence and emptying of meaning from modern life: “The Morrisons, a family on a trip, disappear in the vicinity of Sean’s, (the narrator) mother’s house. After several weeks and dredging the lake on which the house sits, the car is found with the entire family still buckled in. Yet, their disappearance and sudden reappearance serve only as a further example of absence. Insignificant though it may be to Sean at the time, the unexplainable death serves as another item to remain missing. For what purpose and to what end do these deaths serve? The answer too belongs among the missing.“
But the death of the Morrisons prompts the narrator, Sean, to reevaluate not only his own life but the tenuous relationship he has with his mother. The enigma of identity and the inner life remains a gap too great to be bridged between individuals, not just strangers, but even familial relations: “In retrospect, I suppose that it was that morning when I first began to get a strange feeling about her. I realized that she must have an inner life — that she was a person who thought and felt and had memories and desires like the rest of us. But I sensed that there was something changed and hardened about that inner life. We had both become mysterious to one another, and I was aware that she wasn’t particularly interested in my adulthood. I was still her son, naturally; but at some level, I was also something else — an invader, a grown- up mind that was beginning to commandeer the body of the child she had loved so much. (131-2)“
Yet, the searching and probing Sean feels, the sense of dislocation in the presence of his mother, remain forever unqualified. The causes remain unreachable in the past and stretch forward into the presence. The past is palpable. He feels buffeted by forces that remain outside of his conscience yet he is sensitive to their contours. As his father presciently asks him later on in the story, “‘Why do people do anything , Sean? Do you think you can say why people do what they do? They teach you that in college?’“
The inexplicable nature of human beings, their manners and habits and the facts that one can live amongst them for periods of time without ever knowing them constitute a truer missing item. Absence, far from being a characteristic or an attribute of an important other, instead becomes a symbol, a signifier, a totemic object that erupts out of the void to indicate the presence, precisely by an absence of meaning. In Chaon’s prose, the stories throughout bare testament to the totemic power of objects. In the story “Prosthesis,” a middle-aged librarian is startled to encounter a high school lover. But she is even more disturbed to see his prosthetic arm, two pincers in place of where the hand used to be that once caressed her. Or in the story “Falling Backwards,” where a woman named Colleen carries a faded, two foot long piece of braided hair. A piece of braid that once belonged to her aunt who died in 1918. Or, in the story that caused me to initially purchase this book,
Yet, inevitably the other side of being among the missing remains those people we once knew, who have become estranged. Estrangement through time, experience, age, or choice, all these processes cause the bonds that once held people together to fall away from one another. For example, in the story “Passengers, Remain Calm,” Hollis recounts the last few conversations he had with his brother, Wayne, before Wayne’s untimely disappearance.
This dichotomy between the selves we maintain within our relationships, [held together with brackets] and the selves the others might see, become for Chaon the insurmountable difficulty. This is the last thing. The thing no one gets, it is the crux of being human. That Chaon is capable of pulling this collection together and holding the reader’s attention despite the subject matter is a testament to his abilities as a writer. The startling juxtapositions and dark comedy add some light and soften the edges of what otherwise would be strong medicine. Throughout it all, Chaon is capable of balancing the two, his characters may remain missing but there is a sense, in some of these stories, that they are on their way in finding themselves. And in that respect, despite (or perhaps because of the fetish of objects) these stories resemble ourselves, as we too, traverse the ineffable border, to and fro, that separates those who belong from those who remain, among the missing.