Dan Chaon
photo of Dan Chaon   Among the Missing  


Icollection of short fiction is often an odd, hybrid thing. The " short story" as a species tends to be a solitary and lonely creature, and it often resists being corralled into a pack with its fellows. They are meant to be experienced singly, I've often thought, with a long, silent pause between each one.

For me, the unusual thing about writing these stories was that they seemed to want to go together. In fact, many of the stories in this book seemed to arrive at about the same time--not as ideas, exactly, but simply as titles that I'd begun to write down in a notebook. Among the Missing. Here Is A Little Something to Remember Me By. Prosthesis. I Demand To Know Where You're Taking Me. --the names of these stories floated around bodilessly in my head, without plot or characters or even setting, circling around a mood that had been prodding at me for a while.

What was it? It might have been simple dread, but I found myself thinking about it often. It might have been the ordinary, goosepimply sensation of a shape moving just at the edge of your line of vision, into a hedge; or the expression on the face of a passerby, who stares for no reason. It was a mood brought on by a fortune teller, who shuddered when she looks at your extended palm, drawing back for a moment though she never told you what she saw: No, nothing is wrong, she insists, of course a happy future lies ahead. It was the kind of mood that comes when you are driving at night on an empty road and the glowing eyes of a little dog appear in your headlights, a white and black mutt, just standing there, staring like a hitch-hiker. It is the kind of mood that came over me when I learned that the tiny Nebraska village where I grew up--a single block of clustered houses called Brownson--had literally ceased to exist, the land bought up and plowed over into stubble fields.

I grew up in a time of fragments and fractured memories--families split up and reconfigured; people moved away, never to be heard of again; it became common to have siblings and half-siblings that you hardly knew. This was a time when the faces of vanished children began to appear on the backs of milk cartons, a time when the biographies of serial killers were favorite Junior High reading material. Some of the kids I knew ran away from home; some killed themselves; others got pregnant and the netting of childhood dropped away, sending them tumbling unprepared into adult life. I myself went away to college, and spent a lot of energy trying to fashion my life into a shape I thought of as normal, trying to escape the feeling that not only the past but the future was in the process of vanishing.

In writing these stories, I wanted to try to get a grip on the odd, ambient, disconcerting experience of negotiating through late 20th century America. The feeling is perhaps best summed up by the narrator at the end of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom: "...he knew in his heart that something terrible had happened to the world, and that everyone knew it but him "-- the sense, apprehended by the main character in Safety Man, of "drawing closer to the spirit world, the other lives," the unspoken and uncanny underneath the surface of the everyday. I think of this collection as a series of ghost stories set in the real, non-supernatural world, and I wanted the stories to evoke the mixed emotions that such "ghostly" glimpses can elicit-- dread and uneasy courage, sadness and nervous laughter. In particular, this collection of stories concerns itself with the end-of-century transformation of the traditional family structure, and the characters' struggle to find a space in a world which often seems eerily transfigured, contrary to their expectations, changed into a somewhat surreal otherlife. But these are not nostalgic stories, either. Instead, they're about the brave struggle that ordinary people are engaged in--to discover or re-invent a sense of their place in a radically changing American landscape.

One of the things that I love about the short story as an art form is its ability to evoke the ephermeral quality of being alive. I think, for example, of the amateur historian in Alice Munro's story "Meneseteung," "...going around with notebooks, scraping the dirt off gravestones, reading microfilm, just in the hope of seeing this trickle in time, making a connection, rescuing one thing from the rubbish." That is my hope and ideal--to rescue those "missing" moments in time, to take a snapshot of those fleeting, life-or-death visions, before they vanish back into the haze of daily life.

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