Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 208 pages
Welcome to Trace Italian, a game of strategy and survival! You may now make your first move. Isolated by a disfiguring injury since the age of 17, Sean Phillips crafts imaginary worlds for strangers to play in. From his small apartment in Southern California, he orchestrates fantastic adventures where possibilities, both dark and bright, open in the boundaries between the real and the imagined. As the creator of Trace Italian - a text-based, roleplaying game played through the mail - Sean guides players from around the world through his intricately imagined terrain, which they navigate and explore, turn by turn, seeking sanctuary in a ravaged, savage future America. Lance and Carrie are high school students from Florida, explorers of the Trace. But when they take their play into the real world, disaster strikes, and Sean is called to account for it. In the process, he is pulled back through time, tunneling toward the moment of his own self-inflicted departure from the world in which most people live.
Brilliantly constructed, Wolf in White Van unfolds in reverse until we arrive at both the beginning and the climax: the event that has shaped so much of Sean’s life. Beautifully written and unexpectedly moving, John Darnielle’s audacious and gripping debut novel is a marvel of storytelling brio and genuine literary delicacy.
This is the second debut novel I've read by an indie band musician-turned-author (the first is Bird Box, by Josh Malerman). There must be something about musicians who also want to be writers, as while the two books are very different in almost every way, there was a similar "artsy," post-modern, exploratory feeling in the writing of both. Or maybe I am just reading too much into a sample size of two.
Back in the 80s, one of the great moral panics incited by the Moral Majority was backward masking: the theory that rock bands were recording Satanic lyrics (and instructions!) on their albums, which could only be heard if you played them backwards (but somehow listening to them the normal way would still expose you to diabolical influence?). The theory never made much sense, and it doesn't make much sense to Sean Phillips, the narrator of Wolf in White Van, who as a child calls one of these evangelical teleministries to ask why the devil would bother to hide his message if he wants people to hear it, but ends up trolling the very sincere church lady who answers the phone.
That scene doesn't really have much to do with the rest of the book, other than to give it its title. Wolf in White Van is one of the cryptic phrases supposedly revealed by listening to the Beatles backwards, making the title a reference to this sinister but ambiguous threat. The astute reader will also realize that it's referring to the book itself, since it starts at the end and unravels back to the beginning of what eventually lead Sean to the trial with which the book begins.
Sean created a play-by-mail game called Trace Italian, in which the players journey across a post-apocalyptic America searching for a mysterious location called Trace Italian. They send in their moves, and Sean selects a few boilerplate paragraphs from his files, customizes them a bit, and sends them back.
(For you kids who have never experienced play-by-mail games before the Internet era, they were actually a lot of fun, and in the 80s and 90s there were quite a few companies running all sorts of games by mail.)
The Internet mostly killed the industry, of course (the more savvy PBM companies moved to email and web-based gaming), but as Sean tells us, even though he expected the Internet to kill his game as well, he retains a loyal following even into the 21st century, still sending in moves by old-fashioned snail mail. This makes Trace Italian a sort of cult phenomenon, which fits with the events in the book, in which Sean, mostly confined to a secluded existence thanks to a horrible disfigurement, briefly touches the lives of his players and gets glimpses, and more often, speculations, about their diverse outside lives, through the handful of sentences they exchange every couple of weeks in the medium of the game. It gives the entire book the same mysterious, opaque feeling as the game described within the book, in which it's never quite known what is going on, but everyone is drawn in trying to put the pieces together.
In the beginning, we learn that two teenage players of Sean's game tried to play it in real life, convinced that the game was giving them real-world clues. This ended tragically, and the parents of one of the teens sued Sean.
From there, we go backwards. We know initially only that Sean is terribly disfigured — his voice is difficult to understand, his face makes people look away. Eventually we learn how he became disfigured, but the details, the hows and whys and circumstances, are parceled out bit by bit as Sean continues moving back and forth, from his present existence as the creator of a strange little postal game that gives him a meager supplement to his income, to the events that caused teenaged Sean to become a lonely, disabled monster, events which are echoed in the lawsuit back in his present.
This is an odd, interesting, and clever book, and I'd like to have liked it more. There were lots of pop culture references that pinged with me — Conan novels, science fiction magazines back when they were still prestigious and high quality, PBM games, the Moral Majority — and I do appreciate clever and different novels.
But a certain sort of ambiguity in novels bugs me. I don't need everything spelled out for me — I am okay with the author leaving some questions unanswered. But in the end, I still had no understanding of what troubled Sean, what caused him to do what he did, what he was besides an angsty kid with a difficult relationship with his parents. Maybe that is all the author intended me to understand, and he built this short novel about a troubled kid on layers of self-referential narrative devices and cultural easter eggs to be unearthed like the mysteries in Trace Italian. It was an ambitious effort that didn't quite land for me, but I will probably try another book by John Darnielle. 7/10.
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