Posts Tagged ‘ Book Review ’

Catch up and John Darnielle’s ‘Wolf in White Van’ Thoughts

After a long break from vomiting my thoughts over the internet, I have decided to resume these bodily expulsions and now sit dry-heaving in front of my computer ready for my latest amateur musings to come forth. I think that sentence was a little grotesque but I’m going to leave it in. It’s been all change with me lately and, as such, I haven’t managed to get myself to sit down and write anything about the books I’ve been reading. Part of the reason for this is because my reading has been quite limited recently. Since last time I wrote here I have finished Anna Karenina, which I enjoyed a fair bit, but instead of writing about just that book I wanted to do a kind of comparison between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. An idea which I’m sure is totally original. Unfortunately I decided that I had not read enough Tolstoy (Anna Karenina) compared to Dostoevsky (The Possessed, The Brothers Karamazov) and so in order to make a fair comparison I needed to read at least one more Tolstoy novel. Unfortunately the next work of Tolstoy’s that landed in my lap was the formidable War and Peace, in fact a beautiful three volume set given to me by a close friend as a birthday present. I have barely managed to scratch the surface of the mammoth tome and as such a comparison piece is likely some way off. Although I have read another short collection of Tolstoyian works which included The Death of Ivan Ilyich amongst others. I found that particular work to be quite powerful and probably worth discussing on it’s own. Either way, my love affair with late nineteenth century Russian literature has not finished yet and I do still plan on writing an attempt at a comparative discussion. However it may be some time coming.

Not about wolves or vans.

Moving on then, to the actual subject of this post. John Darnielle’s excellent Wolf in White Van. This novel came highly recommended to me by a friend and so I picked it up when I could. Before this novel I can’t remember the last time I read a non-classic text for fun. Whilst at University my reading significantly fell off because when you spend hours and hours reading dry History books, reading for fun becomes not so fun after all. Since graduating I’ve been committed to Russian classics, which I have certainly enjoyed, that sometimes don’t have the same grip over readers that more modern novels tend to have. Maybe it’s to do with the length? Perhaps it’s hard to feel drawn into War and Peace when you know you’re so so far from any meaningful narrative conclusion.Wolf in White Van does not suffer from this problem, being quite a short book, it’s also very easy to get drawn in to the simple personable story contained within. Something that perhaps epitomises the whole draw of the book. Before we go any further, I will preface the rest of this discussion by saying that there will be heavy SPOILERS contained from now on. Although I think the book can be enjoyed just fine whilst in full possession of the facts, I think something may be lost if the details revealed by the slow unraveling of the narrative are already known to the reader going in.

I think the first thing I want to do in writing about this book is praise it. If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be ‘sad’. This is a short, sad story about a lot of things. If I had to guess I would say that the author put a lot of himself into the characters and events of the book, making it a personable read. We know from the offset that the main character, Sean Phillips, was involved in a life changing accident when he was a teenager and that he is threatened with legal action after some teenagers get seriously hurt after they take a ‘by-mail’ pen and paper role playing game of Sean’s devices into the real world and blur the lines between fantasy and reality. Blurring fantasy and reality is a continuing theme throughout the novel, we hear of the protagonist’s  attempts at dealing with his trauma which mostly involved escaping into worlds of his own creation to get away from a lengthy hospitalisation and horrible, long term pain suffered as a result of his ‘accident’. Traditional fantasy settings are the main target for Sean’s escapism, with continual references to Conan the Barbarian and other similar works throughout the text. In fact the time period in which the book is based and the use of popular culture throughout the novel I think hints at an author of a certain age, something I am confident saying thanks to the obvious personal touches he has included. Things like mentioning nights spent at the Arcades, listening to cassette tapes in his bedroom and with his friends as well as various ‘pulp’ magazine just aren’t around in the same way any more. I don’t think it takes many leaps to conclude that the author used to enjoy these things as well. This personal touch created by the pop culture throw backs brings a sense of stark honesty to the novel, really anchoring the story of teenager trauma into the real world.These same throw backs will likely cause readers of a certain age to identify with the characters more heavily than others, although I think a lot of people will have no trouble identifying with going through phases as a teenager that your parents don’t seem to understand. However the story may cut closer to the bone if you grew up with cassette tapes and trips to your local Arcade.

I don’t want to ramble too much and I realise the unstructured and unplanned nature of these blogs can lend themselves to a ‘word vomit’ like phenomena. A stream-of-conscious style discussion is what I aim for when I write these blogs, which means it can get unorganised. I want to emphasise that Wolf in White Van is very good. It explores sensitive topics with delicacy and a sort of starkness that comes naturally to those who suffer tragedy, a great touch in making the narration seem all the more believable. Coping mechanisms, fantastical escapism, family crises, guilt and suicide are all touched upon in 200 pages of honest, stark and gently sad literature. The slow reveal of Sean Phillip’s ‘accident’ is something I anticipated early on. As the first person narrative starts in the present, it makes sense that the book would climax with a big reveal around the disaster that changed Sean’s life forever. We find out early he is facially disfigured, we later find out that it was a shooting accident. Further comments and passages hint at a suicide attempt although nothing is stated outright. Finally the novel closes with Sean walking us through that fateful night, never quite explaining his decision to put a rifle under his chin and pull the trigger. I’ve probably missed something but my current best theory is that Sean Phillips was imitating Robert E. Howard, writer of the Conan series, who took his life in a similar way. This fact and the protagonist’s love of Conan is mentioned in the book. Either way, the journey through the psyche of Sean Phillips is one that prompts self reflection and emotion. Exactly the kinds of thing a novel should do.

If I were to criticise this book in any way, it would be that the pacing is a little off. We jump so often and so quickly between Sean’s tortured memories and the present that there is no sense of real time progression. The only progression the reader feels is further towards the mystery of Sean’s injuries. Due to the nature of the narrative, we leave Sean after he recounts the disaster at the end of his teenager years. We never flash back to the present and, all in all, very little narration takes place there. Because of this, the death/injuries of the teenagers who played Sean’s game (Trace Italian) which he invented to fuel his escapism, feel almost inconsequential by the end of the book. This is because of the lack of progression mentioned earlier. The last part of the story is building towards the reveal behind Sean’s accident/suicide attempt. The fact that this is placed as such suggests that it is Sean’s personal narrative that is the main focus of the novel, this is why I say the narrative about the two teenagers feels inconsequential by the end. To paraphrase Sean Phillips, it feels like a side quest. An engaging side narrative that relates to the main plot, whilst not progressing the story.

This having been said, this is a book I would absolutely recommend. It is a short, sad and honest story that deserves your time. It’s hard for me to judge modern fiction sometimes, since I’ve spent a lot of time reading classics recently and they sometimes require a very different viewpoint, but I feel that this book was something a bit special. I hope John Darnielle writes more books because I would like to read them. Any more feelings or thoughts about this book I will struggle to put into words, I encourage you to look up a proper review of this book if you’re considering reading it based upon this blog post. A critic will be able to quantify the quality of the book better than I. For now I leave you with an amateurs hearty recommendation.

Again I apologise for the sporadic updating of this blog. Time is out of joint etc etc. Nevertheless, a sincere thank you for reading this. If you enjoyed this ramble, feel free to suggest other novels I may enjoy or you would like, for whatever reason, me to write about.
Thanks again.