Darnielle, John (2014), Wolf in White Van, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
I feel as if upwards of 50% of review intros that I post these days are disclaimers somehow tied to my personal bias towards an author, or fat books or genres or things like that. I mention this because there’s no way I can review this book without admitting to similar bias. It is, however, a bit contradictory. Let me start by saying that John Darnielle is the lead singer, songwriter, (sometimes) producer and all around lead person of the American band The Mountain Goats, a celebrated band that has been putting out records for decades. The Mountain Goats is one of my favorite bands, and I consider John Darnielle one of his generation’s most talented songwriters. At the same time, I think I am a bit of a snob. However much I admire Darnielle’s craft, I think I approached Wolf in White Van with a bit of condescension. Look, I admire Neil Young, but his memoir Waging Heavy Peace is fairly lightweight. It’s a lovely read (and highly recommended), but its rambling writing is nowhere near other excellent memoirs. I admire the Silver Jews, but I’m not a great fan of David Berman’s poetry. There are musicians I admire whose books I have decided not to read for now (how good is Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, once we strip away the reverence for her musical achievement? No, I’m asking. I haven’t read it yet). As you can see it’s a fairly long list and something I’ve been giving a lot of thought. So let me say that, first of all, Wolf in White Van is a very good novel. It has some structural issues, there are flaws in the writing, but it’s a very good debut novel, intricately structured, and emotionally powerful. Unexpectedly, it’s literary and wildly ambitious, telling a story about suicide, deformity, a story about survival and about storytelling itself. It’s intensely original, which is its main virtue and which covers up many of its flaws. I have never read a novel quite like it and I’m willing to bet you haven’t either. At the same time, it’s written with a kind of reckless intensity that means it’s really not for everybody, much as I dislike that phrase. The book doesn’t care to introduce you to its skewed way of thinking, or ease you into it. It’s 200 pages that are equal parts dense and loosely self-indulgent. It’s very good.
The story mixes various points in time, from the protagonist’s teenage past to his long hospital stay after an accident, to his adulthood. Sean Phillips (that’s his name) makes a small amount of money off a very old kind of role playing game. The so-called play-by-mail game requires the players to send their moves handwritten (or typed) to a postal address, which then returns the result of the move. If this sounds familiar, it’s also the way correspondence chess works. There are many, many varieties of this, but Sean’s business involves players taking part in a kind of choose your own adventure situation. They are presented with a long description of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and then have to decide what to do. They are not given choices, but Sean has structured the descriptions in a way that all choices fall into different but recognizable categories. Then Sean returns them the result in the mail, which is another long description. The game he invented and scripted and developed, is called Trace Italian, and it’s constructed so intricately that at the time the book is set, no player has ever completed it yet. In a not terribly subtle fashion, the game and players’ progress in it, is presented as one among many metaphors for life in the book. For Sean, writing the various scenarios and scenes of the game helped him find his footing after his accident, it’s his life’s work, and it’s intermingled with the actual events of his life.
“The unnamed every-player who lies in the weeds at the moment of Trace Italian’s opening move – that’s me. [That player] has a goal now, something to do with his life. His map is marked; he’s headed somewhere as he rides down the desolate plain.”
Sean never quits providing the game despite rapidly dwindling numbers of players as “most players just drift off eventually. Their focus wanders; their interest shifts.” He feels responsible for his players, for the labyrinth of moves he sent them into. The absolute nature of the game and the way Sean and many of his players are immersed in it makes the reader think of cultural histories such as the classic study by Johan Huizinga, as well ideas of similacra and simulations by writers like Baudrillard.
With Huizinga, whose work on the middle ages I love and strongly recommend, we have this intriguing idea of how play informs everyday life and is both a force in and an antagonist to politics and violence. The idea of play as an all-enveloping phenomenon is nicely complemented by the (much less substantial) ideas of notorious Frenchman Baudrillard and his concepts of simulations and simulacra. Look, John Darnielle sets up his novel so powerfully, so beautifully at the crossroads of ideas of how life works, and of life simulations, and he keeps mirroring motifs. There is, for example, the present tense situation, where Sean has been sued by the parents of two players of Sean’s game. These two players left the game, as far as Sean knew, they stopped writing, dropped out. At the same time, they decided to take the game into real life, treating the world, our world, our shared reality, as if it was Trace Italian. Eventually, their survival trip through this Trace Italian simulacra came up short, and they were found, one dead, one close to it, somewhere in a ditch they had dug for warmth. One of the oddest parts of the book is that there’s really no conventional plot to any of it. There are things happening, but the situations still feel stationary, and the novel’s effect mostly derives from giving us – and juxtaposing- three situations, three slices of Sean’s life at different times of his life, making us read all three from the context of the two others, forcing us to make an interpretation of Sean’s life. We have his parents, the dead couple’s parents and friends, all of whom turn up in the book, trying to read Sean themselves. In a way, in one of many motif repetitions and mirrors, the three basic situations or rather times of Sean’s life are themselves like Trace Italian move results. It’s as if we had written in after the first situation and then we got to the next point. There’s an eerie feeling to it of responsibility and necessity. Sean, for all the awfulness that his adult life has sort of turned into, never becomes maudlin, never feels sorry for himself. In another set of interpretations, it might be worth it to sorts through the book’s imaginary to find mirrors and repetitions of biblical narratives or stories, because at times, without ever explicitly committing to it, it feels like a fragmented, heightened version of a morality play, informed by a Christian, though not fundamentalist, perspective. Neither in the middle nor the last part do we really see the move, we just see the situation. The only time a scene resolves into Sean really taking a move, deciding on one option among many is the earliest, when teenage Sean decides on a difficult, and badly executed, course of action. At this point I have to warn you that I will explain that situation, which is a minor spoiler and (if you need this kind of stuff?) trigger warning in the last paragraph.
Meanwhile. in this review’s first paragraph, I kept calling Wolf in White Van Darnielle’s debut novel. That’s not entirely accurate. While Farrar, Straus & Giroux refer to the book as a debut novel in the book flap, the question of whether that’s really true depends on your definition of “novel”. Back in 2008, Darnielle published a volume in a book series called 33 1/3, published by Continuum. If you come across any entry in the series, I recommend you pick up a copy of its small, slender paperbacks. The series collects various critics’ and writers’ takes on classic rock, pop and hip hop albums. There is a great variety of authors. For example, Dr. Dai Griffiths of Oxford University wrote on OK Computer, Ric Menck, drummer of Velvet Crush, wrote about The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and Pitchfork’s Scott Plagenhoef authored an entry on If You’re Feeling Sinister. They are short books usually explaining the context of an album with a personal anecdote or with a broader comment on the time of its publication. Much what you’d expect. John Darnielle’s book, titled Master of Reality, is a novel/story about someone locked into a psychiatric institution who is allowed to keep a diary and alternates between unhinged rants and explanations of the songs on Black Sabbath’s seminal album. It’s not a novel, and it’s also not very good as fiction, much more along the lines of what my snobbish expectations had in store for Wolf in White Van. Darnielle writes songs about desperate characters, depression, and about heavy metal. In the little book about a foundational record of the genre, Darnielle offers us all three. The book is torn between filling the role of books in the series and telling a fictional story at the same time. It does well in the former, but flounders terribly when it comes to the latter. In Master of Reality, Darnielle has no good grip on where to take this teenage voice, where to rein it in, where to let it go. Unless you’re interested in the Black Sabbath album, it’s not really worth your time – but for the reader of Wolf in White Van there are interesting connections between the two books.
In a sense, Master of Reality frequently feels like a very early dry run for the much more accomplished later novel. In it, Darnielle stretches and pokes at this teenage character who is both knowledgeable (about the things rock-obsessed teenagers are obsessed) and naive. It’s frequently annoying and if Darnielle’s name hadn’t been on the cover I wouldn’t likely have finished it, despite my interest in the subject matter. That same teenager (at löeast the same archetype) could be said to also be part of Wolf in White Van, but only tiny portions of the book revolve around that teenage character, which is an excellent decision, given Darnielle’s inability to properly master that voice. As I said, of the novel features that character, Sean Phillips, as he is a badly adjusted adult, making a small amount of money off an odd and outdated business, and mostly living off insurance payouts. When he was 17, Sean shot himself in the face with a shotgun. On the list of efficient/painless suicide methods, shooting yourself is not rated very highly unless you’re an excellent marksman (despite its high ranking here). The most famous literary example of people killing themselves with guns, young Werther, lived about 12 hours in terrible pain until he finally died. Goethe goes into unpleasant detail on this. A solid amount of inexpertly performed suicides with guns never even end in death, just in terrible mutilations. Sean Philips is one of those unfortunate people. After his attempt, he ended up with a terribly disfigured head. There’s a chance I spoiled you by telling you this, because Darnielle doesn’t detail the “accident” that leads to Sean’s disfigurement until the last chapters. It’s also those chapters that most closely resemble the teenage voice of Master of Reality, but the author has accrued enough ideas over the course of the rest of the book that he doesn’t need to lean on that voice to add something to the text. The final chapters are mainly used to fill in gaps, rounding out the story and making the topic of role playing and storytelling that are interwoven throughout the book, much more meaningful. There are many possible paths we can follow. Sean, letting them all play out, decided on this particular one.
I have reviewed other books dealing with suicide, like Édouard Levé’s Suicide, Ned Vizzini’s novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and A.L. Kennedy’s On Bullfighting. John Darnielle adds something genuinely original and unexpected to a literary tradition, a unique and cerebral examination of choices. The difference between games like Trace Italian, as they actually exist today, and the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of books, is that Trace Italian is life-like in the sense of having to pick an option from contextual clues, there’s no-one that sheperds my options into three easy to read versions. There is a hopefulness to this otherwise frequently dark book: it’s the plurality of options, and the call to make a choice, any choice, and see what’s your next move.
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