Review: Wolf in White Van

I originally picked up Wolf in White Van because of John Darnielle. I am a big Mountain Goats fan and I figured if the book was anywhere near as lyrical and poetic as their songs, it would be worth the read. I also bought it when I was in Vancouver, so thanks Canada!

Also check out that cover. How cool is that?
Also check out that cover. How cool is that?

This novel is everything I hoped it would be: beautiful writing and a compelling plot explored in a nonlinear narrative. It studies the truths of being alone,  the judging eyes of society, and the gaping hole within us all.

At the age of seventeen, Sean Phillips suffered a disfiguring injury in an unnamed accident that remains a mystery through much of the book, leading him to a hermit’s life of isolation. As a way to fill the gaping hours, Sean creates the Trace Italian, a world of his invention that eventually becomes a mail-in text adventure game taking place in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic universe, as well as becoming a steady source of income and thereby a small modicum of independence. There his imagination stretches wide, creating a dark and adventurous world for himself and others to explore. Many things happen over the course of the novel. We find out about Sean and how he feels about himself and the world around him; how he copes with the way people look at him. We fully inhabit Sean’s mind, seeing through his eyes as he examines himself in relation to his family, his game, his past, and the strangers who invite themselves into his life via the Trace. When two young explorers of the Trace take their game play into reality, Sean’s life is rocked by tragedy and his culpability in those events. This misfortune sends him spiraling back into his own past and ultimately inspecting the accident from which all subsequent events emerge.

Wolf is a complicated story, but it is not a difficult book to read. I found Darnielle’s tone extremely inviting. It’s the kind of story that sort of reads itself. It wants you to keep going. It reads as if Sean is sitting beside you, spinning the sad tale of his life. You just have to keep quiet and listen. It’s both deeply personal and fairly detached. That’s just Sean. The prose is lovely, delving into the depths of humanity and motivation. What causes an action and what are the ripples and effects of any said deed? The concepts of time, emotion, and responsibility run throughout the book.

I really loved the structure. As I said, the story is nonlinear. I’ve never really read anything quite like it. It really is just told as if it were being told to you; as a general rule, human thought is nonlinear. We have a tendency to jump around when we try to tell a story. Just so with Sean. Additionally, the Trace is a fascinating world to examine, the ultimate in escapism, a literal world on paper that Sean created to inhabit. It is hard to do this book justice in review. You just have to give it a shot and trust that I am not lying when I say it is brilliant.

In other news, I’ve recently watched The Imitation Game and Birdman, two contenders for the Academy Awards’ Best Picture category. Both are very good films. I preferred The Imitation Game. Alan Turing’s story is so sad, but one that desperately needs to be told. I loved the juxtaposition of time and the work of the code breakers. His misfortune made me so very, very, very angry, especially from a modern perspective. Benedict Cumberbatch did a wonderful job portraying such a genius and deeply misunderstood man. Birdman was utterly absurdist and I thought the ending was a little forced, but I liked it overall. The cinematography was quite impressive.

Until next time!



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