Sometimes, There Are No Explanations – A Review of Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

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Intrusive thoughts: we all have them. These are those thoughts that come to us, seemingly at random and from out of nowhere, that involve things that we would normally find disturbing: harming or even killing those we love, for instance, or destroying some cherished object, or perhaps, even our own destruction.

“What would happen if I ran the car off the road?”

“I’d like nothing more than to set this house on fire with everyone in it.”

“Maybe I should drop this dog from the balcony.”

Most of the time, one can brush these thoughts off, recognise them as nothing more than an irritation, and move on. Some people, however, particularly those with mental health problems like OCD, depression, and anxiety disorders, might not be able to brush those thoughts aside so easily. They may turn into obsessions, become a source of anxiety, or maybe – just maybe – they might be encouraged to act upon them.

This was one of the things that occurred to me when I finished reading Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle. It is the story of Sean Phillips, who suffered a horrific injury that did great damage to his face. While recovering from his injury he created a game called Trace Italian, a mail-in roleplaying game set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic United States. However, when two people are found dead in the Kansas wilderness and evidence leads the police to Sean’s doorstep, Sean is forced to defend his game, and himself – all the while reminiscing on the events that led him to where he is now.

When Hope first threw this book at me, it was mostly because of the style, and the gaming references. I have to admit, she was right: Darnielle’s style of writing is very interesting, as is the concept of the Trace Italian. I’m especially fond of the latter, because it’s the sort of game I would enjoy playing, but I know of no such games running in my country, and I suppose there’s a reason for that, given how terrible the postal service is here (and I agree with Hope that this sort of game must be played via snail mail,otherwise it loses its appeal).

As for Sean himself, he’s quite intriguing and the reader gets to know him gradually, over the course of the novel. The mystery, of course, is what happened to give him that disfiguring injury. I like the way this aspect of the novel was played out, particularly for the way the injury shaped Sean’s life, as well as his responses to those who see it. I can’t say for certain whether or not Darnielle knew or knows anyone who has had to suffer from a similar kind of trauma to what Sean suffers, but I like the way Sean’s characterisation offers insight into what it must be like to under go something that so utterly and completely changes one’s life at the most fundamental level.

Take, for instance, Sean’s parents. It is implied throughout the course of the book that they do things that aren’t necessarily conducive to Sean’s emotional and mental recovery – or at least, Sean himself suggests they do so – but he is, ever and always, forgiving of them, aware that they react the way they do because they don’t know what’s going on in Sean’s head, perhaps never really attempted to do so, or when Sean tried to help them understand, they themselves withdrew, either from confusion, or simple lack of will to see what Sean wanted them to see.

This was the aspect of Sean’s story that I was drawn to most. I was able to relate to Sean’s inability to truly express himself to his parents, who simply watched him and let him do as he pleased without truly understanding why he did what he did. My own parents are similar, to a degree, and sometimes I wonder if acting out – truly acting out, doing something so utterly, completely radical – would get them to sit up and ask, “Why?” Sean’s own supreme act of “acting out” (an event explained at the end, an event that resulted in giving him the injury mentioned throughout the course of the novel), is extreme, to be sure, too extreme for me, but it does illustrate the kind of pressure he was under – a pressure that is explained throughout the novel, and which reaches a head at the end. I read it as a cry, not for help, but for understanding, for someone to look at oneself and nod, and say “I understand”: a comprehension, at the very least, of what is going on in one’s head, an acceptance of it, even if the other doesn’t necessarily agree with it.

These are, obviously, rather dark thoughts – and I think that’s the whole point of this novel, or at least, one of its points. Sean’s mind is a labyrinth, very much like the Trace Italian, and it is only by carefully sifting through the paths of his memory, for which his game is a metaphor, that he can answer the question “Why?” It’s not a straightforward answer – far from it – but it’s there. It just takes time to reach it. But even then, even after all that hard work, it’s possible that one gets no answer at all, just like the Trace Italian has no real end. Even Sean is aware that the true answer to the question “Why?” was, and always has been, “I don’t know”: an inconclusive answer, just as the Trace Italian is an inconclusive game.

For all that, though, for all that the above would normally be an interesting thing for me, would actually rather please me as a story, there’s something that doesn’t quite sit well with me about this novel. It could be that I didn’t like the thoughts it made me think, the paths it took me down in terms of my own memories and thoughts, but I can deal with that, to a degree. I suppose it feels as if something vital is missing about this novel, some beating heart, some throbbing soul, that I think should be there, but just isn’t. Not even the gaming references, not even the quality of Darnielle’s prose, could make me believe that this novel was alive, that it had a pulse, that it breathed.

Or it could be that it’s simply not to my taste. That’s always a distinct possibility.

Overall, Wolf in White Van is a potentially interesting novel, but it is most certainly not to everybody’s tastes. I’m sure there’s a reason why this novel is so highly praised, why so many people love it, but for my part, I simply can’t find it in myself to love it. It contains so many of the elements I enjoy in a novel, but it appears to be missing some specific, vital spark to it that would allow me to embrace it wholeheartedly and love it as so many other people seem to. Perhaps it is, simply put, not for me.

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