Our Choices Define Us
Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, $24.
Wolf in White Van is unlike anything I have ever read. John Darnielle plunges the reader into a maze of unsynchronized thoughts and chronologically displaced views. The narrator’s mind is a labyrinth into which he invites not only the reader but anyone willing to join in his mail-in role playing game. The cover does a masterful job of conveying the complexities of this novel to anyone lucky enough to happen upon it in a bookstore. Like the cover, the novel offers no way through the winding tunnels of the subconscious. Darnielle is also the lead singer of the musical group Mountain Goats, and his lyrical writing is displayed in flowing sentences that parallel the novel’s intricacies.
The entire novel focuses on the idea of choices and the effects the choices we make have on our lives. Sean Phillips, the main character and narrator of the novel, begins the journey in the middle of its entirety. There are two tragic accidents in which Sean is involved. One of these involves him directly, where the other indirectly implicates him. However, in both situations it is the choices that Sean makes that deliver the tragic outcomes.
After Sean’s self-destructive accident, he is forced to delve deeper into his own mind. Never knowing if he will ever be able to see or be a part of the world of his body, Sean begins to build an intricate and detailed world in his mind. He calls it the Trace Italian, and it becomes a role playing game that generates enough income for him to live on his own. Sean states, “It was later, lying supine and blind for days, faced with the choice of either inventing internal worlds or having no world at all to inhabit, when I started to fill in the details”. Even as a child, Sean imagined himself as a conquering ruler. “I ruled a smoking, wrecked kingdom with a hard and deadly hand. It was dark and gory. No one liked living there, not even its king.” These childhood thoughts seem more than the workings of a child’s imagination. Instead they make us wonder about Sean, and his motives later in the story.
As the game master of the Trace Italian, Sean sets the scene for the characters involved. In a post-apocalyptic United States, there is not much hope for those who plunge into the game. The players mail their moves to Sean and he dictates the outcome of their choices. Sean never killed off any of his players for making one poor choice, but instead coerced them into making better decisions on the next turn. Only after several terrible turns would Sean feel the need to kill off a character. This idea of one poor choice not dooming someone to death seems to have been inspired by Sean’s own accident. The players were searching for a haven located in Kansas, the Trace Italian. Oddly enough, Sean never actually created the place. It seemed as if he never intended anyone to make it to the Trace.
A young couple, mailing their journey to the Trace Italian from Florida, makes the choice to try to find the Trace in the real world. Their decision leads to terrible consequences, leaving one of them dead and the other in a precarious state. Sean is called in to court, to be held accountable for the effects his game had on the young people. Ultimately, Sean is not help responsible, but it does not stop his mind from wondering if perhaps he should have been. Sean talks about one of his players, “I pictured him acting out his dreams in real space, pantomiming his moves in a room somewhere before he wrote them down”. He proceeded to send the boy a scalpel through the mail in honor of one of the boys more courageous turns. Sean even drew comparisons between this particular player and the couple who ended up exactly what he imagined. Certainly, he did not feel that he was completely innocent.
The book deals with the decisions we make and the outcomes that come after, but Darnielle does a masterful job of taking these elements and tangling them in the mysteries of the mind. The structure of the novel is worked so masterfully that both of the horrific events, although taking place many years apart, become both the beginning and the end of the novel. Wolf in White Van is an interesting read for anyone familiar with the intricacies of role playing games. The novel is intelligent, yet very comical in a real way, at the same time.