You should avoid seeing too much of yourself anywhere: in the outside world, in others, in the imagined worlds that give you shelter.
One of the fascinating things about creative people is that they are able to cross over into other artistic endeavors other than the ones that they have become popular in. Over the years artists, musicians and actors have stepped out of their comfort zones to write novels. Not biographies or memoirs, but full blown fictional stories.
I remember browsing Borders (R.I.P) in high school and finding a book that Hugh Laurie had written, a spy story called The Gun Seller. Dr. House was a captivating character to me, so I bought the book and was disappointed to find that Laurie was not nearly as good a writer as an actor. My tastes have changed since then, and finding out that the lead singer of the hyperliterate indie-folk band The Mountain Goats wrote a novel was just as exciting as discovering The Gun Seller in a now defunct book store. I must admit, I was prepared to be disappointed. However, bless the name of John Darnielle, his book Wolf In White Van is one of the best books that I have ever read.
The plot is this:
Sean Phillips was disfigured at age 17 in an accident that gradually is revealed throughout the book. In order to cope with the emotional and physical trauma of his accident, Sean created a mail-in RPG game known as Trace Italian, set in a post-apocalyptic America. Sean sends his players letters explaining what has happened in the game, and the players reply with letters detailing their moves. Basically Dungeons and Dragons over mail. Two of Sean’s players become too invested in the game, taking their actions into the real world, leading to the death of the girl player. The novel is told in (sort of) reverse order, leading back to Sean’s injury. Through many digressions, we see Sean account for the tragedy and come to terms with his own disfigurement.
Essentially, Wolf In White Van is a character study, told in first-person from Sean’s viewpoint. But it is a character study of a young man whose mindset is fractured and jumpy. The novel forces you to follow Sean through his digressions, and it is not until the end of the book that the picture becomes clear.
Darnielle makes great use of this organizational format. Never does Wolf In White Van become a chore to read. Rather, each digressions feels like discovering another part of a maze as we gradually discover the labyrinthine structure of Sean’s fractured mind.
But Wolf In White Van is more than just an exercise in non-linear storytelling. It conquers the importance of imagined worlds in our lives, how they take the bored, disfigured, mediocre or outcast and turn them into something unique and wonderful. Scifi, videogames, fantasy, all offer places where you can be yourself and not worry about exclusion from the mainstream. But there is a price to pay. While these imagined worlds may offer refuge in life, letting the imagined infringe on the real world will destroy both. Imagined worlds are a refuge, but can not take the place of real human interaction. An imagined world is an artifice, its paths already predetermined by a distant designer leading to triumph of tragedy, but only in the scope of the game, TV show, or movie. When the illusion overtakes reality, our mental and social lives are gradually dissolved into an illusory world of light and sound. In our day of video game culture, comic book conventions, science fiction communities and virtual worlds, this message is prompt and ominous.
Wolf In White Van is not just a cautionary tale, it also shows the use of the imagined worlds that we partake in. They can help us cope with the world around us and the tragedies that befall us. Darnielle also uses the book to discuss the experience of mental illness and what a person will do when no rules apply to them. This is a dense book, and I found myself wishing it was longer. 200 pages does not seem like enough space to let these unfold to their fullest extent.
If the Mountain Goats eventually break up (which probably won’t happen for awhile, they’ve got something like 15 albums now), John Darnielle has a promising career as a full time novelist. Through his wonderfully natural prose and wit, he invites us to journey through the mind of a lonely and disfigured young man, and learn more about our own coping mechanisms.
I can’t wait to see what Darnielle writes next.