Tag Archives: Postmodern

On John Darnielle’s “Wolf in White Van”

14 Oct
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle follows the meandering voice of Sean Phillips–disfigured and left in solitude by a tragic event in his childhood–into the Trace Italian, in the hope of finding refuge from reality.

If it weren’t for a friend of mine, I would never have heard of John Darnielle’s debut novel Wolf in White Van or John Darnielle’s acclaimed band the Mountain Goats (Thank you, @shriver!). Yes, I know. I’m a dirty philistine, but my eyes are open now. I may not throw on the Mountain Goats’ bouncy tunes by choice, but I will pick up any other novels Darnielle decides to write, because Wolf in White Van was an absolute thrill to read.

In Wolf in White Van, Sean Phillips narrates his reclusive life with an only half-lucid, meandering voice that leads readers through the maze of his memories and fantasies. Sean is the inventor of Trace Italian, a mail-in role-playing game set in post-apocalyptic America. Players from around the country send Sean their moves, and Sean mails them their results in return. Encroaching hunters offers players the choice to run, hide, or forage for food; finding a hut in the desert offers the choice to explore it or move on. Each choice leads to another. Each road destroys the possibility of other roads. Trace Italian is a universe of infinite possibility, and though the goal of the game is to find the Trace Italian–a safe refuge hidden from the horrors of this barren world–readers will learn that sometimes the goal isn’t at the end of the game but at the beginning, where it all started. When Lance and Carrie–two teenagers looking for escape–find themselves lost in Sean’s creation, even Sean’s fortified sanctuary begins to crumble.

“I feel my own freedom remembering this turn, what it means to find a place where the world’s shut out for good at last, where all signs point back at one another and the overall pattern’s clear if you look hard enough.”

Everything unravels and points backward in time toward the event that both destroyed and rebirthed Sean’s life, and event that directly led to his creation of the Trace. As a teenager, Sean was grossly disfigured and hides away to save others the discomfort of seeing him, hearing him speak, enduring his presence. Trace Italian provides most of the contact Sean has with the outside world, and he forms bonds with its players through small, insightful signs they give him with their handwritten game turns.In the astrologer’s hut. Through fragmented passages and no semblance of linearity, Darnielle etches out a schizophrenic narrative that circles a single tragic event in Sean’s past, and try as he might, he cannot shut out his own memories. There is no refuge that can protect Sean from himself. Everything he does traces inwards into a dark interior, more complicated than his ruined exterior.

Trace Italienne

A trace italienne, or star fort, is a type of gunpowder-age fortification designed to minimize risk by cannonball to the main walls of the fort. To Sean Phillips, the Trace Italian is a mythological sanctuary and the goal of his mail-in game.

If there is any criticism I can offer of Darnielle’s debut novel, it’s that WiWV is too brief. I’m a big fan of escapism and so is, supposedly, Sean Phillips. But we spend very few pages in the meat of Trace Italian. A couple of paragraphs of Sean’s second-person, choose-your-own-adventure role-playing game gives readers a glimpse of a vast, alien world, but I felt like I was told I was looking at a Brachiosaurus while being shown a single vertebra. I didn’t quite believe the Trace could be a real haven for Sean or a real danger to Lance and Carrie, because I didn’t quite believe the Trace was a real place. I wonder what Darnielle could have done with another hundred pages.

All you need to say is, "White van," and your mind is filled with dark and threatening possibility.

All you need to say is, “White van,” and your mind is filled with dark and threatening possibility. Add the word “wolf,” and you have yourself the worst kind of predator.

The area where he excels is creating incredible, surreal images in a way that reminds me of Don DeLillo or Haruki Murakami. Young Sean Phillips spends his post-event time watching the Trinity Broadcasting Network in the wee hours of the morning, bingeing on talk shows hosted by pink-haired pastors’ wives and evangelistic specialists on the evils of popular culture. Sean is drawn in by the bizarrely repetitive segments that cover the same topics using almost exactly the same words over and over again. One specialist warns of the rock and roll lyric that, played backwards, actually says, “wolf in white van.” It’s a message from Satan. It’s a sign of evil. Sean wonders what it means. He explores the ludicrous but inherently dangerous image of a starving, predatory wolf in an inherently dangerous vehicle like a white van. There is a monster, lying in wait, setting the trap, luring its next meal.

The question becomes, who is the wolf? Is Sean the disfigured monster luring innocent victims into his trap of a universe? Or is Sean the victim, the lured one, the innocent one? As Sean lies prone–both in the isolation he created for himself as an adult and in the hospital in his past, recovering from an unbelievable tragedy–and builds the Trace Italian within himself. He raises walls of dirt and forgotten things, and cloaks himself in his own version of the truth.

“When I was a child, I dreamed of powers like these, but I no longer have those dreams. I am free.”

John Darnielle

John Darnielle reads Wolf in White Van for the Macmillan audio book. Check out first few minutes on SoundCloud!

Read this book if … your body is ready. WiWV is a crazy ride, short as it is. Read it also if you’re already a fan of The Mountain Goats. The novel reads as if Darnielle expounded on one of his angsty death ditties–short chapters feel like verses, and the rhythmic prose moves the story along to a steady beat. Make sure you listen to “The Sunset Tree” on repeat while you read.

Don’t read this book if … disjointed narratives bother you. This plot doesn’t move linearly, and it may take some careful reading to follow along. A casual reader may still find it entertaining, and Darnielle’s voice is captivating whether you know what he’s talking about or not, but WiWV requires a good deal of attention to keep pace with the experimental story structure and keep track of the heavy symbolism.

This books is like … the dark, scary version of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, in which a virtual reality game is substituted for a written one and the whole story is told from the perspective of players instead of the creator. On the level of narratives, WiWV reminds me of Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things and, on a lesser scale, of Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist or maybe Mao II, but without the over-the-top, self-adoring postmodern mumbo jumbo (mumbo jumbo that I deeply love, so don’t get me wrong).

On Paul Auster’s “The New York Trilogy”

28 Dec
Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? Either way, start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy.

Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? It doesn’t matter. Start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy.

It’s never more apparent how brilliant Paul Auster is when you start reading him just after you have finished a mediocre novel. The New York Trilogy is one of Auster’s most renowned works of fiction, and–you guessed correctly!–it’s actually three separate novels. In New York, where all magical things happen, several mysteries are being investigated by several characters, some metaphysical shit goes down, people talk a lot about people talking or not talking, excuse me, my name is Peter Stillman. But all that aside, TNYT is a mystery of mysteries. It is the meta-mystery. It transcends. Best to read it while either completely high or sleep deprived.

City of Glass

The first book of TNYT, City of Glass, follows the story of a writer of mystery novels named Daniel Quinn. The writer answers a call from a wrong number, beginning his adventures as an unlikely private detective who is hired to protect Peter Stillman from a potential murderer. Peter Stillman lived most of his life locked in a pitch black room and being beaten into utter silence. His potential murderer is the father who locked him in the room and beat him. As Quinn investigates the case and tracks Stillman Senior through the streets of Manhattan, he takes on multiple identities, slowly losing himself to his various fictitious selves and falling into the void of the Stillman’s mysterious story.

The first in The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster's City of Glass takes mystery to a new level.

The first in The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster’s City of Glass takes mystery to a new, meta, super level.

Auster’s narrative breaches the fourth wall again and again, wrapping the reader into the absurd plot, too. Along for the ride, you will feel Quinn’s growing panic as his meticulous notes gradually lose meaning and as his life becomes increasingly isolated, distilling to a narrow view of the world of only two entities–Quinn and Stillman–and then eventually just one entity. Eerie but infinitely gripping, City of Glass kicks off the trilogy with a strong start. I don’t know how anyone could stop at just one book the The New York Trilogy.

“For our words no longer correspond to the world. When things were whole, we felt confident our words could express them. But little by little these things have broken apart, shattered, collapsed into chaos. And yet our words have remained the same. They have not adapted themselves to the new reality.” –City of Glass


The second installation opens with an actual private detective. Blue has just inherited sole ownership of his agency from his retiring mentor, Brown. Blue’s first client is a man named White who comes to him, obviously in disguise, to hire Blue to shadow a man named Black. Taking up the case, Blue spends days, then weeks, then months watching Black do nothing but sit at his desk writing. The reports Blue writes to White start telling more the story of Blue’s life than Black’s the line between their lives begins to blur. (Yeah, blurred lines. I said, and now the song will you be stuck in your head like it’s stuck in mine.) But can the two of them continue to exist as essentially the same person in two different places?

The second installation, Ghosts, tells the story of a private detective, Blue, who has been hired by White to shadow Black.

The second installation, Ghosts, tells the story of a private detective, Blue, who has been hired by White to shadow Black. The question is, where was Burgundy this whole time?!

Auster drops some of the character development and detail of the first novel to introduce more themes of the trilogy–namely, the grey area between author and character. It’s the chicken and the egg conundrum: the author and his character. Which came first? Which is more real? Which one survives the other? The New York Trilogy explores these questions over and over again, from different angles and with different names, but the story is the same. A man stands watching another man who watches back. They tell each other’s stories and therefore tell there own. In Ghosts, Auster gets to the nitty gritty, and maybe that means he’s lost some entertainment value, but by this time I was thoroughly hooked.

“This isn’t the story of my life, after all, he says. I’m supposed to be writing about him, not myself.” –Ghosts

The Locked Room

Auster’s final installation is The Locked Room, a title that references both earlier novels in the trilogy, describing a place of solitude, birth, and demise. In TLR, the protagonist speaks from his own perspective for the first time. His childhood friend Fanshawe has disappeared, leaving behind a wife, child, and boxes of brilliant writing. The narrator steps in to publish Fanshawe’s work for him, making a splash in the publishing community, and begins to take care of the missing author’s abandoned family. Fanshawe has both blessed and cursed the narrator’s life. Our protagonist becomes obsessed with finding Fanshawe and ending the curse.

The Locked Room finishes the trilogy with the story a man searching for his missing friend, who abandoned his family and critically acclaimed writing and disappeared into thin air.

The Locked Room finishes the trilogy with the story of a man searching for his missing friend, who abandoned his family and critically acclaimed writing and disappeared into thin air.

“Then I hauled the two suitcases slowly down the stairs and onto the street. Together, they were as heavy as a man.” –The Locked Room

All three novels bring forward the same conundrum: who writes whom? Does the author birth the character or vice versa? Who is allowed to live in the end? It’s a fascinating question. It’s a fascinating plot that Auster can base three novels–and three entertaining novels, at that–on a mystery that is never really solved, and I suppose that’s the point. There isn’t an answer. There is only the question. Well, that’s kind of cheating, but since it’s Paul Auster I guess I’ll let it slide. Now I will need to pick up a copy of Paul Karasik’s and David Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel adaptation of City of Glass, as should you.

Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli adapted Auster's City of Glass as a graphic novel.

Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli adapted Auster’s City of Glass as a graphic novel.

On Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho”

12 Dec
Bret Easton Ellis's novel American Psycho is a modern classic, and arguably one of the best American novels written in the 21st Century. Agree? Disagree? When I'm done dry heaving, I'll let you know what I think.

Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho is a modern classic, and arguably one of the best American novels written in the 21st Century. Agree? Disagree? When I’m done dry heaving, I’ll let you know what I think.

The horrific smile and psychopathic caper of Patrick Bateman is a cultural icon, thanks in part to Mary Harron’s film adaptation starring the inimitable Christian Bale, and in this rare case, American Psycho the movie comes close to working just as well as American Psycho the novel. Fight me all you want, people! but I’m standing by this statement. Not to say that there aren’t differences, and not to say that the book can’t achieve some goals where film falls horrifically short. Harron’s film certainly leaves imprints of her gory images on the insides of your eyelids, so thanks for that, but Bret Easton Ellis’s novel drives home the horror of the nation’s favorite psycho in a way that only literature can: with slow, torturous, written repetition (and without the restrictive water wings of the MPAA). 

Patrick Bateman is just your typical trust-funded, Harvard-graduated, Hampton-holidaying, Armani-wearing Wall Street workaholic, pulling in a massive salary for doing nothing in a time in the U.S. where there was too much money to know what to do with. He spends his mornings working out and perfecting his tan. He spends his afternoon guzzling cocktails with his pals and having his secretary screen his calls. He spends his evenings buying dinner in the hottest restaurants with his AmEx Platinum and snorting cocaine in the hippest clubs. He spends his nights hiring call girls and dismembering them. Alright, so Bateman isn’t entirely typical.

Patrick Bateman tries to fit in, but how well can one hide a sociopathic personality and a psychopathic compulsion to mutilate every living thing around you? It's the question all the kids were asking in the '90s.

Patrick Bateman tries to fit in, but how well can one hide a sociopathic personality and a psychopathic compulsion to mutilate every living thing around you? It’s the question all the kids were asking in the ’90s.

Ellis deftly and seamlessly alternates between Bateman’s mundane day-to-day life and his terrifying night time hobbies. The daily routine of Ellis’s devilish protagonist is mind-bogglingly surreal: scenes of Bateman and his friends poring over their Zagat guides for hours, looking for a place to eat, only to end up at the same restaurant they always go to; repetitive instances where Bateman is confused for a number of other built, tan, well-dressed look alikes; dates with every valium-saturated woman but his girlfriend. For pages and pages, Bateman does nothing but analyze his peers’ outfits (two or three or four buttons on the cotton suit, turtle shell or faux wood Oliver Peoples glasses, suspenders or belts, etc.), or catalogue his drink orders (Bellinis and J&Bs and Absolut martinis and Cristal), or reel off in-depth reviews on Whitney Houston’s entire musical career. The absurdity of this version of America and the petulance extreme wealth creates in these characters are laughable. American Psycho is a funny book. And then the next thing you know, this laughable man is playing in the remains of dead hookers (they were “call girls,” but they’re “hookers” when they’re dead). I won’t go into too much detail, because why spoil the fun? but there are nail guns, chainsaws, hangers, rusty butter knives, and little rodents involved. Oh, and an axe.

Patrick Bateman is a psychopathic, homicidal, concrete jungle American–a man whose attempts at fitting in with the norm turn into an obsession of erasing his identity. Eventually, the stress pushes him over the brink of sanity. Ellis, in turn, pushes the readers’ understanding of American wealth and American excess, and more so pushes readers’ understanding of what evil looks like. I experienced as much revulsion toward Bateman’s rich living style as I did in the graphic descriptions of his torture sessions with his victims, because Ellis bludgeons away with imagery of both. In the end, Bateman is a deranged mess, barely holding onto reality, his identity scraped raw under the pressures of his socialite life and murderous urges. And in the end, I was horrified by that socialite life and desensitized to those murderous urges.

You can add "nail gun" to the things I'm crossing off of my list for all of eternity because of this book. On that list, you can also find, "chainsaw, matches, pliers, wire hangers, acid, The Patty Winters Show, and rats."

You can add “nail gun” to the things I’m crossing off of my list for all of eternity because of this book. On that list, you can also find, “chainsaws, matches, pliers, wire hangers, acid, The Patty Winters Show, and rats.”

The world of American Psycho is more American than American and more New Yorker than New York. I can’t say I’m proud to be an American after having read this novel. I can’t say that I truly enjoyed it either. I respect Bret Easton Ellis and think him a brilliant author. The novel truly moved me (toward the toilet to retch) and made a lasting impression, but I’m not sure I would read this again, and I’ll think carefully before I loan it to any of my friends. One thing is for sure, I’ll never look at a rat or a man in an Armani suit the same way again.

I recommend this book to readers who like

a lot of mindless gore (just kidding, it’s not mindless), social commentary, psychopathic murderers


books written by Chuck Palahniuk, Don DeLillo, or Roberto Bolaño.

On Updike’s “Rabbit, Run”

13 Jul

I considered titling this post “Sex and Updike,” but that seemed more than redundant, so I’m going to maintain a pattern.

Reading Updike has and will ever be a challenge for me—a constant struggle against the easy high road of feminist indignation—not because Updike’s undoubtedly genius prosaic skills somehow redeem him for his misogyny, but because misogyny isn’t and shouldn’t be the primary focus of his novels, especially Rabbit, Run. Sex is and should be.

Sex, in the shameful light portrayed in Rabbit, Run, becomes the motivation of every action, every scene, every development in the plot. It is both liberation and weakness. The guilt applied to sex through centuries of Western Christian ideologies rears its ugly head (Get it? Head?) in the most entertaining way possible: via Rabbit Angstrom’s crises-driven escapades.

Rabbit is a former high school basketball star, a small town hero who can’t seem to adjust to being an average young father and husband. His fear of normalcy spurs him toward drama. Rabbit runs toward situations in which he can win and conquer and be notable. He runs away from anonymity. He runs with his dick flapping in the open air, and maybe he would’ve been much happier if he had just fapped at home instead trouble-making on the streets of his hometown.

Maybe I derive my affection for Updike’s prickly protagonists from only this: a pity for people who only value themselves on a scale of sexuality, on a scale of dumb broad to virile male athlete.