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Tome On The Range

Points Of Divergence: On John Darnielle's Wolf In White Van
Stephanie Boland , October 19th, 2014 11:06

Stephanie Boland gets into the myriad complexities of The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle's world-within-a-world, game-within-a-book debut novel, Wolf in White Van, finding a not unfamiliar cast of characters and references, teen angst made something more potent and a powerful treatise on memory

The premise of Wolf in White Van, the first novel proper from The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, is simple enough: A young man named Sean has, through events that become clear over the course of the book, been disfigured since his early teens. Since then, he has spent his years creating a game called ‘Trace Italian’, an adventure-by-mail whose players wake up in a post-apocalyptic America and try to make their way to an eponymous refuge. Trace Italian gives Sean solace and a creative outlet, until two of his players take the game too far; Wolf in White Van tells of his attempt to address what happens to them and thus to him, as their tragedy forces him to consider his own. This is a novel of world-creation, of grief, memory, and growing up. The Virgin Suicides meets Dice Man, Girl Interrupted meets Glass Bead Game.

It’s inevitable that many in Wolf in White Van’s first flush of readers will be long-term fans of The Mountain Goats. As may already be evident, those who open the novel anticipating confluences with Darnielle’s lyrical oeuvre will not be disappointed. Style aside, a knowledge of the band’s back catalogue will render Sean an already familiar figure, reminiscent of a cast of other troubled young men: It does not, for instance, take a huge amount of imaginative power to picture Jeff and Cyrus from the All Hail West Texas-opening ‘Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton’ subscribing to Trace Italian or even, if things had unfolded differently, creating it themselves. The furious yet hopeful energy they and other Darnielle creations emit — as close to exemplifying a Mountain Goats aesthetic as anything can — shares a vibrational frequency with Sean.

But more on this later; for, while there are parallels to be drawn between Darnielle’s other work and Wolf in White Van, richer treasures still await those who consider points of divergence. It seems obvious to point out that the form of the book is a different beast to that of the short song, but the novelistic pacing of Wolf in White Van is so central to its successes that to refrain from comment would be negligent. Although if anyone can evoke literary elegance over three minutes of chords, it’s Darnielle, there is a slow-building circuity here that even the most introspective pop song would be hard pressed to sustain. When the novel opens in Sean’s family home, its ontology is strange and its cast near incomprehensible. By the closing lines, which come with a bittersweet tidiness, Sean’s world is familiar and the domestic landscape can be seen, as it were, face-to-face. There is something of TS Eliot’s lines from ‘Little Gidding’ to this shift; the journey we go on with Sean over the course of the novel, traversing landscapes real and imaginary, allows us to come at the end of all our exploring to the point zero of his life, and know it for the first time.

Again, I’m getting ahead of myself. Although this is a story about one boy, it is also about a condition of living, and if Sean is no everyman he is nevertheless an iteration of something wider. To appreciate the significance of what has happened to him — at his own hand and otherwise — requires one to recognise the deeper undercurrents of adolescence which pull at the novel’s characters. Wolf in White Van understands the complexities of a painful youth better than most; few texts give equal weighting to sickness and cure, but here neither are sidelined, and recovery for Sean is not a linear journey but a pathway as fraught and meandering as his game. Darnielle’s own time working as a psychiatric nurse in California is undoubtedly in play here, as indeed it was in his 33 1/3 title of 2008, Master of Reality. This celebration of Black Sabbath explained the band, as its blurb put it, ‘as one might describe air to a fish, or love to an android’, as its narrator — an institutionalised young man — tries to ‘convince his captors to give him back his tapes’. The voice of Master of Reality has a pure love for the band and a righteous anger; the first lines of the volume, written in diary entries and letters, simply read:

          October 11, 1985

          FUCK YOU ALL GO TO HELL

If Sean is generally more controlled than his literary cousin, the moments at which we glimpse his once white-hot rage are no less threatening for it. Hauntology has become something of a popular buzzword lately, but Wolf in White Van is particularly dextrous in navigating the tax memory charges on self-knowledge (and the stories that grant reprieve). Sean, both as an adolescent and later in life, diverts himself from the reality of his narrative by imagining alternate histories and futures that will not come to pass. Moments from his younger years telescope and cluster; an image of his father caring for him after the shooting morphs to consist, in his memory, of ‘every time it happened’. The malleable imagination Sean is left with becomes a recurring means of resistance. Wolf in White Van deals with an age in which adolescence, after all, is a time when utopian freedom is promised and yet growing emotional maturity is expected. Without going so far as to name Sean a simple emblem of the teenage condition’s general angst, there is something poetic in how Wolf in White Van radically disrupts the demands placed on youth, even if the means employed to do so are violent. For this reason, Sean is difficult to pity, despite the tragedy of his actions. The sense of his powers, such as they are, is too potent; showing his now almost mythic mastery of language, Darnielle punctuates Sean’s thoughts with declarations of intent and assertion which defy the reader any chance to reduce him to an easy figure of sorrow. ‘I took control of the place, of the scene’, he tells us. ‘I made it mine’.

Trace Italian — the land over which Sean is Prospero — is, according to him, ‘thrown together from half-understood comic books only’. Unsurprisingly, then, Wolf in White Van also displays the textual colour and nerd-culture referentiality that Mountain Goats fans know so well. Darnielle has never been coy about his interest in death metal, weekend comics and the more grotesque end of the fantasy novel spectrum, with this darkly adolescent mood board providing the cultural texture for many of his most revered tracks, from ‘Lovecraft in Brooklyn’ to ‘The Day the Aliens Came’. Wolf in White Van employs a similar pallet, and the unselfconscious joy that the novel finds in counterculture teenage tastes not only makes for an uncommonly true portrait of what it means to grow up a conscientious objector to the mainstream, but also gifts us an intimacy with Sean which can only be described as tender. A protagonist who might in other hands have appeared simply bitter reveals glimpses of a careful, hard-won kindness when he speaks of the books, music, video games and fellow fans he loves. The almost talismanic reassurance he draws from these pre-injury touchstones is deeply affecting; at one point, he rents a video from his childhood and recalls ‘…when I was a kid I used to think about Gor the way some kids thought about making the football squad. It was an object of religious contemplation’ which, for those who don’t follow Darnielle’s twitter account, is not so far from: ‘when I was fourteen I brought a tiny handheld cassette desk to school to play “Sweet Jane” for people on’, or, indeed, from Joan Didion’s famous line, ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’.

Of course, all escapism is at core a double bind, and Trace Italian catalyses harm as well as healing. Part of the book’s slow-burn brilliance is its unfolding image of illness and compassion as seen through the prism of youth, which is almost necessarily the prism of youth culture. The collage of pop culture inheritance and personal genius that creates the game at the heart of this novel has a familiar tang for those who have similarly used art to claw our way out of something. At one point, Sean reflects on how carefully such things must be navigated, ‘in the outside world, in others, in the imagined worlds that give you shelter’. Letting yourself be saved by song and story, Wolf in White Van reminds us, doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing. This might, in fact, be reasonably argued as the novel’s finest twist. For even as Trace Italian gives Sean a star to steer by, others falter by it; just because something is the only thing that can save you doesn’t necessarily mean it will. In the video to their 2005 track ‘This Year’, the members of The Mountain Goats enter bound and gagged into a stage set house, where they are forced to play their song of desperate hope among half-assembled props. Even the most fervent psalms of self-preservation come footnoted.

Yet this may be something of a feint. Like his Jandek-revering creator, Sean admires those who create work from isolation, the ‘guys living in distant backwaters’. His own sprawling analog creation, which he believes no-one will live long enough to finish, is very much in this tradition. A solitary magpie of fantasy, Sean uses his work to open an escape hatch from his head to the outside world. Through his written interactions with his players, Trace Italian permits Sean to display an empathy for others which, one senses, is too infrequently afforded to him. The building of Trace Italian is as much the building of a life after as it is the fictional universe, and if Sean is ambivalent about the acts of clemency he performs as bedroom Dungeon Master — Wolf in White Van is no simple morality tale — there is still a sense that finding a means to gift others what you need most is a vital act. You cannot guarantee everyone will make it, but this one boy might.

Trace Italian, though, is more than just an emblem of grace. A constant presence in the novel, it affords Wolf in White Van a complexity of structure which belies Darnielle’s familiarity with a broad literary canon. Trace Italian is Wolf in White Van’s world-within-a-world and, although not quite mise en abyme (more’s the pity), like all the best stories in stories it reflects and scatters the light of Sean’s life. Novels which use the trope of a secondary world tend to do so either to highlight or obscure their status as fiction, and Darnielle’s is a particularly effective example of the latter category. Sean’s first-person account of Trace Italian is a ruse which obscures the fact the ‘real’ world of Wolf in White Van is, when one stops to consider it, also of his invention — our horizons as reader are his. While it might be too glib to say the game is an allegory for the novel’s dreamlike ‘real world’, then, there is nevertheless an elegance to the relationship between the two which lends this book a palpable richness. The metaphysics of Trace Italian, it seems, form a resonant counterpoint to Sean’s development since his injury. At one point, he tells us that creating Trace Italian was ‘building … a home on an imaginary project’, and when we learn that the game’s players keep maps of their progress, it feels as if we are being invited to also survey the topography of Sean’s mind.

Ultimately — inevitably — this is the toughest aspect of Wolf in White Van to comment on. The novel is, after all, a dispatch from the front lines of endurance. Interviews with Golden Gate survivors aside, we rarely hear from characters like Sean; his rage and dread are at points almost pre-Lapserian, but the novel demands we not shrink from the sides of his character that are hard to face. One senses, however, that Wolf in White Van will still comfort those who need it to. Its title, when it is finally explained, is symbolic of the vague insider status that has characterised fans of Darnielle’s music, and Sean too is attentive to the people who ‘get it’ and those who don’t. At one point, a decision in Trace Italian leaves players indelibly marked by which of several possible alliances they forge. There is an allegorical aspect to this, too; the literal scars sustained by teenage pain are in most cases slight — plenty of adults bear lines that leave strangers non the wiser — but Sean’s trauma is visible forever. Still in his twenties, strangers wince at a face which unavoidably broadcasts the damage he has done to himself. Nevertheless, Wolf in White Van chronicles several encounters with people who are unrattled by, even understanding of, Sean’s condition. Against the odds, connections are made through shared love of art or through mutual understanding of pain; as in real life, there are few people in this novel who have not done some sort of damage to themselves. The empathy between characters, and between the reader and Sean, is strong. Once again, Darnielle has woven anguish into poetry, and in doing so offered a precious gem to the clan of those who get it (as well as, one hopes, a route in for those who don’t). It would not be surprising to find Wolf in White Van on lists of best novels about young people for a long time to come; certainly, it is one of the finest contemporary novels about mental illness. I can only hope — and this is a compliment— it will not be Darnielle’s best.

Wolf in White Van is published 6th November by Granta

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