John Darnielle’s brilliant lyricism is no secret to Triangle-area fans of his internationally-acclaimed band The Mountain Goats. Fewer have, however, taken the plunge (or perhaps known about) his more lengthily literary side, expressed most publicly (until now) as a novella in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, Black Sabbath: Master of Reality, a 100-page examination of the classic heavy metal album from the perspective of a 15-year-old psychiatric patient. His first full-length novel, Wolf in White Van, was published on Tuesday, and concerns itself with similarly heady (and dark) themes. After launching the book in New York City in an event with John Hodgman, he returns home to Durham tonight for the first of two local readings. Tonight (Thursday, September 18) he’s at Motorco Music Hall, presented by The Regulator Bookshop, and on Monday (September 22) he’s at Quail Ridge Books. Yesterday, the novel was named to the long-list for the National Book Awards for Fiction.
“Welcome to Trace Italian, a game of strategy and survival! You may now make your first move. Isolated by a disfiguring injury since the age of seventeen, Sean Phillips crafts imaginary worlds for strangers to play in. From his small apartment in southern California, he orchestrates fantastic adventures where possibilities, both dark and bright, open in the boundaries between the real and the imagined. As the creator of Trace Italian—a text-based, role-playing game played through the mail—Sean guides players from around the world through his intricately imagined terrain, which they navigate and explore, turn by turn, seeking sanctuary in a ravaged, savage future America. Lance and Carrie are high school students from Florida, explorers of the Trace. But when they take their play into the real world, disaster strikes, and Sean is called to account for it. In the process, he is pulled back through time, tunneling toward the moment of his own self-inflicted departure from the world in which most people live. Brilliantly constructed, Wolf in White Van unfolds in reverse until we arrive at both the beginning and the climax: the event that has shaped so much of Sean’s life. Beautifully written and unexpectedly moving, John Darnielle’s audacious and gripping debut novel is a marvel of storytelling brio and genuine literary delicacy.”
In some ways, Wolf in White Van acts a s kind of anti-thesis for Darnielle’s recent work with The Mountain Goats. The band’s 2012 album, Transcendental Youth, has its more somber edges at times but (I would argue) if not a more ecstatic through-line, an encouragement both direct and indirect to get up, go out, and do/be/create, at least some destination of if not acceptance then catharsis. In Wolf in White Van, we encounter mostly aftermaths — of a 17-year-old’s reasonless actions and of a later, different pair of teenager’s foolish decisions — and how these together make anything resembling meaning, or not, where even catharsis is in short supply. Of the dangers of both going out to do, in joy and curiosity, and also of staying in and delving too deeply into your own dark fantasies. In this short, emotionally packed and affecting novel, even the multiple universes which branch out from every decision are weighed against reality as something perhaps to mourn. In this spiraling, reflecting, inverted narrative, the power of Darnielle’s lyricism in prose to affect you is emotionally and even physically staggering. There’s not even much of a fleeting glimpse of the romanticism of melancholy: we get neither “depression” nor “psychosis” just what happened.
No book can be for everyone. Perhaps my take on it is overly grim — I do not mean here to frighten anyone away with the idea that you will be relentlessly battered with emptiness. There are moments of beauty and even wonder, here. Of living a moral, empathetic, honest life after disfigurement. Of imagination and stuggle. Of insight into what it means to be human and alive, yet also fragile, unpredictable. Of the balance of tenderness and anger of parents confronted by the unspeakable and inexplicable. Of the everyday and the rare. All this in not too much over 200 pages, a one-sitting hardcover treasure. But my reaction to it is personal, both as someone who wrote and played “roll your own” roleplaying games at middle school lunch tables, whose family history includes suicide by rifle, and who as a parent aches at the violent rages that can overtake a child’s mind and body and refuse to let go. Who grew up with Conan and Krull and Fritz Leiber and late-night weird broadcasts and all the rest.
The novel’s construction is a first person account, perhaps a diary or private deposition to be filed away, forever, in the dark recesses of a specifically gray metal filing cabinet, in a weird sort of chronology, spiraling in and back on itself — like the maze/labyrinth on its cover — around some key details that slowly emerge more definitively, obscured, restrained, unleashed. It’s told in a detached way, but not sociopathic. It’s a more clinical assessment, an historic record. Listening to the audiobook, read by Darnielle, there are few points of inflection, two of which come to mind and bookend the novel. The first is the opening, a quote from Robert E. Howard’s The Thing on the Roof: “‘And the treasure?’ I broke in eagerly.” conveyed with genuinely naive hope. The last is the final word, spat with an almost rising fury: “door.”
That hope is immediately mocked, and later revisited only briefly in fantasties both private — Sean’s childhood imaginings of being Howard’s Conan on a stone throne — and public, in the pages of his play-by-mail “choose your own adventure” style roleplaying game, Trace Italian. Or, not so much the pages themselves, but in the near-manic, excited “turns” that come in by mail.
That fury is as unexpected as it is powerful, transformative, giving one final note, one final color for the rearguard view that all novels become once we’ve closed the last page. Providing a missing weight that shows the lack of it all the more. Like the book itself does, to stand as testament to the other roads our lives could take. We are grateful that we live this fragile, often inexplicable life, while we can. A reset button to expectations and the technicolor possibilities of life. As Darnielle writes, as Sean: Welcome to Trace Italian, a game of strategy and survival! You may now make your first move.
Note: You can hear an excerpt of Darnielle’s narration of the audiobook, out today from Macmillan Audio — unfortunately the excerpt doesn’t capture the fantastic intro, outtro, interstitial, and underlying musical score which Darnielle composed and performed for the book, distorted pings that add atmosphere and empty space to create an immersive experience like few others.
MORE: You can read an excerpt of the novel at FSG; another excerpt is available at io9 along with a review by Annalee Newitz. Another excerpt and review are available at NPR, along with a pre-publication conversation and a more at-length interview with Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. More reviews: NY Times, The A.V. Club [interview], and (by Brian Howe) Indy Week [interview by Allison Hussey]. More? A Q&A with Gawker, a guest piece on his cultural influences at Vulture, and an interview at Electric Literature.
“Wolf in White Van is utterly magnificent. I was surprised and moved and amazed page after page after page. I am talking about audible gasp type stuff, and also deeper, interior gasps of reflection and astonishment and gratitude. This story is a hard and beautiful human puzzle that will be a pleasure to solve and resolve over many readings. And you can quote me on that. Every day. That is all.” —John Hodgman
“I can’t remember the last time I so willingly followed a narrator into a frame of mind this splintered. (It helps that he’s mostly wry about it.) As you read you waver between suspicions that the world itself is ill-made, and concern that the fundamental fault lies within our very brains. As for the writing, I’d go for anything else Darnielle writes like a shot.” —Helen Oyeyemi, author of Boy, Snow, Bird
“Wolf in White Van is John Darnielle’s savage genius gone free range. A meditation on monstrosity, isolation, escape, and transformation, this trance of a novel lures us deep into the labyrinth of one young man’s imagination. What we find there is alluring and feral, raw, unflinching and exquisite. Absolutely fucking brilliant.” —Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Battleborn
“I loved everything about this book. Blisteringly authentic—like a garage-made bomb on a slow-burning fuse, or like Darnielle set out to adapt an old Iron Maiden T-shirt as a literary novel and succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.” —Austin Grossman, author of Soon I Will Be Invincible and You
“Wolf in White Van is a testament to the ways in which all of us use imagination to survive, and the ways in which that same imagination can take over our lives until there’s little else left. It brings us inside both the reality and the fantasy of day-to-day life in the way that only John Darnielle can. Read this book. You’ll never hold another one like it.” —Joseph Fink, creator of Welcome to Night Vale
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