Nowhere does the truism ‘less is more’ apply more than when writing fiction. I recently watched George Saunders tell Google staff that he strives to honour the reader’s intelligence when writing, namely by removing all redundant or even half-justified words and sentences that tell the reader something they could have worked out for themselves. Wolf in White Van is a masterclass in negotiating the trade-off between providing and withholding information to create depth and nuance. Having forged a career writing short songs about long stories, it should come as no surprise that John Darnielle is immensely talented at this.
Wolf in White Van is a story about reality and imagination and how both can be beautiful and both can be scary and both need to be treated with care. The protagonist Sean Phillips, recently disfigured, creates a postal adventure game called ‘Trace Italian’ to pass the time and escape from his injury-induced isolation. The world he creates is a desolate and dangerous post-apocalyptic wasteland, a place which acts as a safe haven where Sean and the players can not only flee their own lives but take complete control of another. In the game, players journey across the land in an attempt of finding the inner sanctum, a mystical place of safety that no player has ever reached. I don’t want to get into the plot too much as I don’t want to spoil things, but the structure of the novel’s narrative is similar to the game, orbiting some central answer or truth that is never quite reached.
The idea of a new life is important. The game allows an existence that is far more exciting than reality yet fundamentally safe, some other dimension where the laws of physics and biology and history do not necessarily apply. For example, the dystopian world of Trace Italian might be irradiated and full of bounty hunters but death is not easy to come by. “It’s very hard to die, because all the turns pointing that way open up onto new ones, and you have to make the wrong choice enough times to really mean it.” (Pg 157) Mistakes are not severely punished and players get a second (third, fourth) chance when choosing the wrong option. This sits in stark contrast to Sean’s experience in real life where one bad decision changed everything in seconds with no hope of return.
But just how permanent and binding real life’s choices are is a matter of perspective. There is an argument that the game is not a contrast to Sean’s life but a reflection, a direct mirror of his experience. As traumatic and affecting as his incident was, he is given some semblance of a second chance. For all of the physical and psychic suffering he faces, the bottom line is that he survived. To return to page 157, it’s very hard to die.
Patrick deWitt (author of the excellent The Sisters Brothers) described WIWV as “a hymn for those who inhabit lonely universes, and a harbour for anyone who has sought refuge in a reality other than their own.” I feel this goes a good way to getting at the heart of the novel. Much of Darnielle’s song-writing concerns outsiders who are humiliated or neglected or just plain ignored, but always resisting in their own way, always fiercely alive. Sean’s disfigurement serves as an obvious example of this idea of separation and social exclusion – a young person who looks or acts or lives differently is treated with wonder or terror or both and finds he misses out on basic and fundamental aspects of the human experience through no fault of his own. Sean’s injury is obviously vital to certain aspects of the plot, but in others it is just another manifestation of a common problem – he is different. He could just as easily love men or paint his nails or collect cards and wear black t-shirts emblazoned with dragons, he would still join a vast ensemble of Darnielle’s characters who are in the same position.
Whether or not Darnielle would want his musical career dragged into every mention of his literary one is up for debate (I’d imagine it could get annoying being labelled as ‘that Mountain Goats guy’ rather than a National Book Award nominated author) but, hell, we’re a music website, we have an excuse to dig too deeply into past lyrics. I could really use some footnotes here to save clogging up the text with quotations but you’ll have to live with it. The obvious first point of call is 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed, an album that reportedly draws upon Darnielle’s adolescent years for inspiration. The song ‘Mole’ is particularly interesting, with allusions to digging and deserts and hospital beds. Some of the lines seem very much relevant to WIWV: “I came to see you up there in intensive care / They had handcuffed you to your bed / There were tubes going into you and out from you / Bright white gauze bandages at your head […] Out in the desert we’ll have no worries / Out in the desert just you and me.”
The song ‘Cotton’ on the same album also has a line which seems fitting: “This song is for the people / who tell their families that they’re sorry / for things they can’t and won’t be sorry for.” Indeed, if you look hard enough (too hard, perhaps) there are lyrics relevant to the novel across the whole MG discography. ‘Game Shows Touch Our Lives’ from Tallahassee contains the line: “People say friends don’t destroy one another / what do they know about friends?” and The Sunset Tree’s ‘Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod’ reads: “and alone in my room / I am the last of a lost civilization / and I vanish into the dark / and rise above my station.” ‘The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,’ a contender for my favourite MG song, explores a similar outsider-with-convictions theme, namely a pair of goth/heavy-metal types planning to outpace, outlive and get even. The track contains a line which seems to capture the central tenet of Darnielle’s writing. “When you punish a person for dreaming his dreams don’t expect him to thank or forgive you.”
John Darnielle’s talent (dare I say genius) is taking the admittedly gratifying Outsider Gets Revenge story (or the sequel – Unnoticed Becomes Noticed: Through Violent Means) and making it less clear-cut, more human. Sean is not a character eternally consumed by rage or frustration, and his fixation on fantasy seems a longing for the cruel-but-clear world of binary morality and total conviction. Sean is 3-dimensional/real/alive because he is at once remarkably kind and empathetic and capable of destroying lives. In some ways he is ignorant beyond hope and in others understanding beyond all expectation. Through it all, one thing is clear: he is not evil or noble, hero nor villain. He is not Conan the Barbarian.