The Uncanny, Hope, and the Short Story

As part of San Francisco’s LitQuake Literary Festival, I attended a Word for Word staged reading of Dan Chaon‘s short story, “Stay Awake,” last night at Z-Space. It was memorable for two reasons:

1) It was the first time I’d tasted Sofia, champagne in a can, a venture of the Coppola vineyard. A Blanc de Blancs, it’s 70% Pinot Blanc, 20% Sauvignon Blanc, and 10% Muscat Cannelli. Very eye-catching and the perfect “art event” bubbly.


A Four-Pack of Good Cheer!

It wasn’t bad, but my taste buds may have been influenced by the extremely salty enchilada dinner that left me parched and wanting something to wash away the bad taste in my mouth. Others agreed, though, that it was very drinkable. A caveat: watch out for the champagne headache if you have more than one.

2) I discovered an author who’s view of life is simpatico with mine. Dan Chaon’s collection of short stories, “Stay Awake,” has been described as “eerily beautiful,” “powerful and disturbing,” “superbly disquieting,” and “mesmerizing and gripping.” The book cover’s blurb describes the stories as filled with “scattered families, unfulfilled dreamers, anxious souls–lost, fragile, searching characters who wander between ordinary life and a psychological shadowland.”

The cover of the collection depicts a typical suburban house in a dreamscape darkness with only a single light glowing in the window of the attic. Chilling.

At the back of the collection, there’s an interview with Chaon where he talks about the collection’s genesis. He wrote the first story for McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon and published in 2003.


“Chabon’s project was to combine so-called literary writing with pulp and genre storytelling elements, and I was very much inspired by what he had to say. I felt like “The Bees,” [the story written for Thrilling Tales] was a breakthrough for me, and after that I set out to explore that ghostly/horror story element…It opened me up to the idea that “literary” didn’t necessarily mean “realism.” 

So Chaon read the stories of Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Bowen, and Shirley Jackson. And he thought “maybe we need the uncanny to find a way to express the way it feels to be alive right now.”

I think the stories are surreal in the way personal tragedy often feels like some cosmic joke, while the tragedies they contain are very much a part of reality. 

When Chaon was developing the collection, he began to see images repeated throughout. This repetition hadn’t been planned, and his first instinct was to change the details to make the “echoes” less noticeable. But on further thought, he decided to add even more echoes and connections until reaching the last in the collection, “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White hands,” the story that contains all of the echoes from the earlier ones.

So we have variations on a theme until all the instruments in the band combine their solos to form a single whole. Chaon recognizes that he is very much inspired by music. The origin of the collection’s title story, “Stay Awake,” lies in a Disney Mary Poppins lullaby. Chaon describes how a version of the lullaby sung by Suzanne Vega came to haunt him,

and how the story developed as he slowly gathered factual information about malformed babies and couples’ desires to have children.  

The story, “Stay Awake,” begins with the lines: “Zach and Amber’s baby was born with a rare condition that the doctors told them was called craniopagus parasiticus. This meant that their baby had two heads.”

Sitting in the darkness of Z-Space’s theater, the discomfort in the Word for Word audience was palpable. I don’t want to give away the plot and ending of the story, so I’ll let you muse on that startling opener.

During the audience Q&A after the show, it was fascinating to hear the director’s perspective. She described the “lightness” that ends this tragic story, a rising up supported by imagery that builds throughout.

And that’s something to take to heart when we’re writing, isn’t it? Many authors and editors say that no matter how dark the subject matter, one should at least feel a kind of hope when the reader reaches the end of a story. But the form that the hope takes can be as slight as the shudder felt on the surface of an earthquake miles below.

The main character in Chaon’s story repeats to himself, “Even when our death is imminent, we carry the image of ourselves moving forward, alive, into the future.” 

Wouldn’t you call that some kind of hope?

15 thoughts on “The Uncanny, Hope, and the Short Story

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    Since I read this, I’ve been thinking whether I inspire hope in my current WIP or not. I think I do (or at least I hope I do). Even if the ending is happy, hope is important to give the reader something to hold on to when the protagonist’s world falls apart. Good topic. Now it’s got me thinking…

  2. FictionFan says:

    Very interesting – I think definitely an author to add to my quest to find the shivers, and I must say that song is incredibly eerie. But personally, I find the idea of champagne in a can much more terrifying – it made me come over all European! 😉

    And re hope, yes, that gets my vote – there must be something left to hold onto at the end.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Your TBR pile is already teetering. 😮

      Yes, I too, was a bit terrified before the first sip. Perhaps it was due to the excessively salty taste left in my mouth from dinner, but the champagne wasn’t that bad. Coppola is Italian, after all, so it tasted a bit like a low end Prosecco. I wouldn’t say I’d buy it to drink at home, unless I’m making mimosas.

  3. 4amWriter says:

    My first novel I wrote is rather dark, and while I know I have hope threaded throughout, sometimes I wonder if I have enough. Then again, I appreciate your point that hope can be enough even if it’s as slight as the shudder felt on the surface of an earthquake miles below. Beautifully said.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I suppose you could poll your readers and see what they think. However, if you are pleased with the result of your vision, shouldn’t that be enough? I’m not a fan of writing novels by focus group. 😮

  4. Laurel Leigh says:

    Clearly, I don’t drink enough! High time to replace my requisite chai with a can of fine champagne and who knows what my characters will stumble into. Since they’re usually of the cheap beer drinking sort, probably a lot. I love the strategy of adding to the echoes once discovered. It’s such a reminder to be on the lookout for possible connections among the stories beyond the ones you can plan ahead of time. Thanks for a post that made me think!

  5. susanissima says:

    Love this post! The iconoclastic gesture of champagne/knowledge in a can called “Sofia” (after Coppola’s daughter), Vega’s gripping version of “Stay Awake,” the shot of adrenalin upon reading “…their baby had two heads.” Can’t wait to sip on Chaon’s stories, and then get down to writing. Thank you, Jilanne.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Susan, I think you’ll find some of the other stories in this collection equally gripping and disturbing. I’m studying the collection now to see exactly how he does it. I know you’ll enjoy them. Thanks for stopping by!

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