When I was young, I’d sometimes come home from school on the cusp of tears—the memory of however I’d been mistreated that day still fresh like black paint. My parents did their best to console me, but mine were not superficial anxieties; my social dread would hum at roughly Lovecraftian levels, and that was just my emotional baseline.
Still, my parents did their best. They constantly reminded me of their love and that was often enough to help me forget. I was in the depths one day when my father tried to reason me out of my sadness. “They only say those things to you,” he said, “because they are afraid of you.” Of course, I was not a scary guy—grass blade thin, wore clothes like a pole wears a tent, athletic like a sloth trying to get away from a fire—but I immediately understood what he meant. He elaborated: “They are afraid of you because they do not understand you. You’re different from them.”
Regardless of whether this was true in my case, a bolt of truth hit me as my father spoke: It’s easy to fear what you don’t understand, what doesn’t offer itself up for interpretation according to your categories.
John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van is a book about a person my father might have tried to encourage in a similar way. The novel’s narrator and protagonist is a young man who lives in seclusion because of his severely disfigured face. Unable to enter into the ongoing flow of society around him, Sean operates mail-in adventure games out of his apartment. Trace Italian, Sean’s most famous creation, operates like a classic choose-your-own-adventure text-based computer game but with one essential difference: instead of interacting with a computer, players write out their moves and send them by mail to Sean, who interprets their choice of action and sends back a scenario predicated upon it. Keeping maps and notes, players roam over the wasteland of a post-apocalyptic America, seeking out a star-shaped tower that rises out of the distant and irradiated Kansas plains. The games exist in a shared world of reciprocal imaginings, with Sean occasionally leaving notes for his players on the scenarios he sends them.
When the novel opens, we find that Sean is involved in a legal imbroglio over his culpability in the death of a young player and the maiming of her boyfriend. A tragedy occurred when the pair acted out their next game move in the non-imaginary world instead of through the mail, and the girl’s parents are unsuccessfully attempting to pin her death on Sean.
From this point, the novel moves in chronological reverse, carrying us from Sean’s present legal issues back to the zero hour of his brutal head injury at age 17. The vehicle for the story is Sean’s continuous stream of recollections.
The game, we find, exerts a strange power over the lives of many of its players. Sean tells us that one committed in-game suicide to keep his real self from falling in too deep. A partial explanation for this power would appeal to the circumstances of the game’s creation. Not only is Trace Italian Sean’s most famous mail-in game: it was also his first. “There is something fierce and starved about first ideas,” he tells us. It’s particularly true of this idea, which bloomed in Sean’s mind as he lay in a hospital bed recovering from the self-inflicted gunshot wound that obliterated his face.
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From its first pages, Wolf in White Van evinces the same qualities that have earned Darnielle praise and recognition for his songwriting with The Mountain Goats. A knack for scene-painting is one of Darnielle’s many strengths. The broken, searching, and desperate characters that live in his music share moments with one another that Darnielle brings to realization in fine shades of desire and emotion. These qualities carry over into Wolf in White Van.
When Sean is in the hospital after his injury, he receives visits from Kimmy, a friend who seems able to see him in spite of his open head wound. The love and gratitude that well up in him under the gauze come out in gurgles and animal sounds, the only signs he can offer to reciprocate her treating him as a person. Kimmy continues to visit Sean, at least for a time. One day, he tells us, “she didn’t feel like visiting anymore, and then she stopped.” Kimmy has not diminished through this; if anything, she becomes more fully human for having a life that carries on even though her friend’s has become fixed.
Interactions between Sean and his parents evoke the complicated mixtures of feelings that develop naturally in the context of relationships with long histories. His mother is constantly unable to say what she means; his father gets the words out in the wrong way, often for trying to practice his ideas in advance of saying them out loud, a protective habit developed after communication with Sean became impossibly fraught with hazards. His missteps are frequent and sometimes disastrous, but he remains committed to his son. Sean’s mute anger over being asked not to attend the funeral of his grandmother gives way inside of two pages to pity for this man, his broken father, who tells him over the phone, “Your grandmother . . . that was my mother.” Sean is filled with sympathy, and the weight of it settles in alongside his outrage. His love and anger intertwine and saturate each other.
But even for all its emotional subtlety and power, the prose Darnielle uses to capture Sean’s alienation is frequently cool, crystalline, and epiphanic. Darnielle observes without judging, and conveys passion and feeling without creating intimacy. His characters are distant from one another and from the reader. The distance is thick like a layer of cotton bandages, but this insulation somehow muffles nothing. We see and understand the figures that live in this story like ice carvings, intricately drawn and remote.
Wolf in White Van also brings us repeatedly to the point at which seeing and understanding end. Sean’s parents want to understand the meaning of Sean’s actions and the tragedy that changed his life, but Sean sees himself in a way that precludes understanding. At one point he remembers calling in to the Trinity Broadcasting Network and acting possessed by the devil, but in his telling it’s clear he didn’t pick up the phone with malicious intentions. The scene simply played out the way that it did; he was just along for the ride. This memory leads the adult Sean to a realization about himself:
“I know a secret about young Sean, I guess, that he kind of ends up telling the world: nothing makes him tick. It just happens all by itself, tick tick tick tick tick, without any proximal cause, with nothing underneath it.”
In a newspaper or courtroom Sean’s injury might be described as a failed suicide, but Darnielle told NPR in an interview about the book that he sees Sean as having experienced an accident in a true sense. In Darnielle’s terms, Sean is “caught up in a sequence” that results in his shooting himself in the face with his father’s rifle. Sean demonstrates a sure-footedness in going about the act, but the resolve seems to come from without: he experiences the episode like a demoniac would, and keeps ticking.
There are many literary antecedents for Sean, characters who remain blind to the sources of their own actions even as they wreak destruction. Shirley Jackson gives us one such character in her book The Road Through the Wall:
“Tod Donald rarely did anything voluntarily, or with planning, or even with intent acknowledged to himself; he found himself doing one thing, and then he found himself doing another, and that, as he saw it, was the way one lived along, never deciding, never helping.”
Tod goes on to bash in a toddler’s head and hang himself out of fear after being caught. Meursault from The Stranger is another figure in this line; he shoots an Arab man on a beach because the sun is too bright on his face, and no real reason besides. Then, too, there’s Enoch Emery, thinking vainly that he has a chance of opposing the inscrutable will of his blood as it directs him inside a theater in Flannery O’Connor’s novella Wise Blood.
Sean seems to triangulate somewhere between these three, and it is as much a product of the book’s form and style as the content of Sean’s actions. The alienation that Sean the character experiences begins at the prose level; the mutilation that separates him from the world only reifies the loneliness and isolation he has experienced since before making his childhood phone call to the Christian television station, and this sense of being apart—different, misunderstood, unwanted—is an organic product of the voice of the novel’s narrator, at heart a sensitive and intelligent person at grips with a cold, stupid world.
The intertwining themes of meaning and choice grow out of this voice as well. Not suited to the society that opens wide, paved paths to him, Sean strikes out on his own. After his blank procession of acts results in his near death, he builds an imaginary world of meaning to contain varieties of possible choices that ramify without end, and invites others into it. It’s all a fiction, but an essential prop for the expression of his life, and an act of resistance against the abyss that once almost swallowed him.
Wolf in White Van dispenses its existentialism in small but clearly marked doses. Sean observes his father “looking for meaning where there wasn’t any,” and engineers Trace Italian so that there is no chance that a player can achieve a final victory: there will always be another dungeon, always another scenario in which destruction hangs out in the wings. The Trace itself may be many things, one of which is the fixed identity of bad faith, the impossible point of final arrival for personality—which final arrival would mean death for the individual. Arrival at the Trace isn’t the point. The ongoing, terrifying journey through fields rife with mutant cannibals is the point. Life itself is the point. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.
The name of the destination is massively suggestive in another way, too: a trace of home, of safety, of the past, of peace. It’s a sign of the sort of nostalgia that directs a person to something that has always already happened. The Trace might beckon us towards an impossibly static identity, but it also promises a respite that is unattainable in this life. It is fit for an afterlife—either restoration to the power that set us into being, or a reabsorption into the constant play of forces that comprise the material universe.
Though the Trace is inaccessible to Sean’s players—“Technically, it’s possible to get to the last room in the final chamber of the Trace Italian, but no one will ever do it. No one will ever live that long.”—its gravity exerts a pull on them that is inescapable. We may not ever arrive at a perfect verbal meaning, a consummate version of ourselves, or a total sense of peace, but the pull of these ironic hopes never wanes. It is the sum of human vocation to pursue them until we exhaust ourselves, and arrive.