Summer’s over and we’re hurtling through September into the fall, into October, the start of the last quarter of 2014. While three months and a fortnight remain in the year, I’ll be surprised if anything released in that time blows me away like John Darnielle’s* new novel, Wolf in White Van, which hit shelves this past Tuesday, Sept. 16. (and, the following day, was long-listed for the National Book Award).
The story, in broad strokes, is about Sean Phillips the designer and sole creator, owner, and administrator of a text-based role-playing game, Trace Italian, conducted over snail mail. Phillips conceived of the intricate, almost infinite, post-apocalyptic game, its universe and game play elements during his long recovery from an…incident…that left his face severely disfigured. The story starts with present-day Sean dealing with a legal issue resulting from one of his Trace Italian players dying after moving his game play out of the mail and his imagination into the real world. The narrative then moves backwards in time to reveal how Sean got to this point.
I am loathe to write too much about Wolf in White Van’s story and plot elements. It’s something I don’t want to spoil in any fashion for potential readers. I’ll just say the book is a stunner…a gem…a cosmic gut-punch.
But “spoiling” Wolf in any traditional sense isn’t really possible. I would argue that while the “how-and-why” details of the story comprise the central narrative questions, the point of the book is the impossibility of answering them in any objective way. Like life itself, you will have to take in and account for the minutiae, the ephemera, the seemingly meaningless details to even start to grapple with the idea of “why”.
A search for meaning and a desire for things to make sense are human instincts: find the inflection points, separate the genuine from the simulacra, label the “telling” moments. They also are components of a reader’s expectation when picking up a book. But, in the end, the Meaning (capital “M”) of any moment, event or entire life is only a wholly subjective construct of an individual, limited and shaped by his/her experiences and choices (or, more often, mindlessly inherited from others)…a “dark smudge of an idea shared among believers,” as Darnielle’s narrator describes the idea of Satanic messages purportedly encoded backwards into some music.
An exploration of finding meaning in others’ actions is worthy, profound, fertile ground for a writer. The genius of what Darnielle achieves, however, is to have the central construct of the plot, the book’s narrative style, the narrator’s personal details and even the physical act of reading a book harmonize, reflect and amplify each other**. If this sounds complicated, meta and/or naval-gazing, it’s only due to my failure to effectively communicate Darnielle’s feat. Wolf in White Van is deceptively simple, elegantly designed and plainly and powerfully written.
Upon finishing the final, devastating page, I spent the next half hour re-reading key portions of the book. I’ve returned to it several times since. The further away I get from completing it, the more this book unpacks itself in my mind, revealing new layers and concepts, undiscovered feats and treasures. Wolf in White Van is stunning.
* I should mention that Darnielle is the creative force and lead singer of the Mountain Goats, a band I’ve only vaguely heard of and have never actually heard
** There is undoubtedly an apt music metaphor to be used here. I’m not the guy to come up with it