The links that connect brothers
Alone and badly scarred, a young man searches for his lost brother, hoping for a friend
Long before brothers started fighting in the back of the station wagon, they got off on the wrong foot in Western civilization. By the time Freud described the murderous fantasies between fathers and sons, brothers had already been deadly antagonists for millenniums. When Remus mocked his brother's wall, Romulus killed him. When Abel upstaged his brother's sacrifice, Cain slew him.Skip to next paragraph
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In the early 1940s, both "East of Eden" and "The Skin of Our Teeth" revived the Bible's first brothers, reenacted the murder, and won Pulitzer Prizes. Recent incarnations have been less contentious, but hardly harmonious. Wally Lamb's "I Know This Much Is True," Tim Gautreaux's "The Clearing," and Guy Vanderhaeghe's "The Last Crossing" all show men struggling to restrain their violent brothers bent on self-destruction - a kind of therapeutic reimagining of the ancient myth.
Dan Chaon's debut novel, "You Remind Me of Me," makes a fascinating addition to this list. With deep insight and a fluid style that never calls attention to its considerable beauty, he's been earning accolades for his short stories up till now; his second collection, "Among the Missing," was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001, and "You Remind Me of Me" pulses with the emotional intensity his fans have come to expect.
The story follows the disconnected lives of two brothers, one given away for adoption at birth, the other mauled by their mother's Doberman at the age of six. Both these events - traumatic in their own ways - ricochet through a number of lives, creating a web of trajectories that tempt us to discern the direction and velocity of character. But even if you miss the stray allusion to "rosebud" from "Citizen Kane" late in the novel, it's clear that Chaon is writing about the irreducible mystery of human nature.
He contributes to that mystery considerably in the opening chapters. Each begins with a specific date - March 24, 1977; June 6, 1966; June 15, 1996 - but the characters' names are sometimes held back and their relationships to one another are scrambled in a way that frustrates our efforts to place them.
He may be presuming too much about the diligence of busy people trying to carve out 30 minutes of reading before bed. (I eventually drew several tangled genealogies on a piece of scrap paper. Chaos and consternation erupted when my daughter accidentally threw it out while setting the table.) But the fortunate readers who persist will come to see that this problem is emblematic of the challenge all these characters face as they struggle to organize their own lives, sifting through hopes and memories, visions of what they'd planned and realizations of what they've become.
Jonah was a quiet, withdrawn boy even before his mother's dog killed him one Easter season. Revived by paramedics a few minutes later, he spends the rest of his life assuming that this attack was "what set his future into motion," but that explanation becomes increasingly inadequate. Perhaps, Chaon suggests, the key lies in his severely depressed mother and the sense of gloom she shed over his childhood. Or perhaps his personality was determined by the persistent fantasy of the lost brother, the idealized sibling who could have served as an enduring friend.