Is it just me, or has this novel received tons of hype? Maybe not as much as We Are Not Ourselves, I’ll grant you, but tons nonetheless. Everyone seems unbelievably hyped up about the fact that John Darnielle, who apparently is “widely considered one of the best lyricists of his generation” (according to the book jacket), has finally written his debut novel. I’m not sure why I chose to read this novel instead of, say, We Are Not Ourselves, or another three hundred pages of War and Peace, or a little bit of PAT CONROY!!! in honor of the season, but I did. And now I’m going to tell you about it.
The protagonist of this novel is Sean Phillips, a grossly disfigured man who runs a role-playing game. The novel is allegedly told in reverse, and I say ‘allegedly’ because it contains so much backstory and internal monologue – which bounces around in time as interior monologue is wont to do – that it really doesn’t move forward or backward; it just sort of sits there and writhes.
Bit by bit we learn how Sean became disfigured (he sustained a close-range gunshot wound to the face – we learn more details in the book, but I won’t reveal them now in deference to anyone who wants to be kept in suspense). His disability prevents him for speaking intelligibly, and he tends to stay at home most of the time. He is estranged from his parents and has few friends. We also learn about the game he operates, which is called Trace Italian. In the long months of his recovery from his injury, Sean created a dystopian future world centered around a fortress in Kansas called Trace Italian. There has been some kind of nuclear or radioactive event (which I suppose symbolizes Sean’s debilitating accident?), and anyone who plays the game has to manage his/her own physical symptoms, fight off various bad guys, forage for food and water, and try to make it to safety in the Trace Italian. The game operates like one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that used to be popular when I was a kid. When someone signs up for the game and pays for a subscription, Sean sends them a written description of their initial surroundings and then offers them four choices. They mail back their decision, and he sends them another Xeroxed sheet explaining what happens as a result of their choice. Sean has a file cabinet full of these sheets, so once he did the initial work, the game sort of runs itself, which makes it an intriguing career option, but I digress.
Darnielle both does and does not address the obvious question about why Sean would choose to run his game by mail when he could easily do so online. Darnielle hints that Sean has been managing this game for a long time: we are not told his age, but it seems entirely plausible that his disfiguring accident took place in the mid-eighties or so – maybe around the heyday of Dungeons and Dragons? Sean started running his game by mail because mail was the only option at the time and then for whatever reason decided not to upgrade to an online system (that’s just my best guess – we’re never explicitly told). Sean also seems to like doing things the slow, old-fashioned way. He admits that his game is not as popular now as it used to be, but Sean seems to like connecting with other people who are outsiders in some way and aren’t impressed by flashing lights and gizmos and bandwidth, and he doesn’t mind the fact that a by-mail game doesn’t appeal to most customers. He has a tightly-circumscribed-but-comfortable life: insurance checks that pay his rent and other basic necessities, doctors who care for him as needed, and the game to supplement his income and fund his candy addiction.
At some point, two high school students named Lance and Carrie begin to play the game, and they become more personally involved than most of Sean’s other players. When they send in their choices of where to move next, they often add personal notes about what they are doing in their real lives, and on one occasion instead of choosing one of the four options Sean gives them, they pencil in a fifth.
At some point, Lance and Carrie decide to take the role-playing game out into the real world. They go to Kansas and actually begin physically doing the things their fictional selves were doing in the game. Never mind that modern-day Kansas isn’t exactly a futuristic dystopia, and presumably there would be houses and businesses and that sort of thing in their way – somehow they are actually following Sean’s instructions in real-world Kansas, and then something very bad happens to them, and there is a court case to determine whether Sean is responsible for what happened to them, and the court case, of course, is a reminder of Sean’s own accident, and he spends time recalling how his accident happened, and what happened when his parents tried to prove that someone was responsible for it.
This novel is only OK. If I hadn’t been told that Darnielle is one of the best lyricists of his generation, I probably would have said that the book is well written (and it is, objectively speaking), but there is nothing lyrical about its prose. I was a little disappointed. The prose is direct and competent and clear – the sort of prose we call “effortless” – but it doesn’t add anything to the experience of reading the novel. I was also a little disappointed about the plot. So much is staked on what happens to Lance and Carrie and on what happened to Sean in his own adolescence. We do find out what these accidents were, but (call me jaded) they were pretty small-potatoes. Maybe I’ve just spent too much time working in boarding schools – but these accidents, around which the suspense of the novel is based, were fairly ordinary. Tragic, yes – but ordinary.
Of course it’s true that novels can be and often are about ordinary things, but those novels don’t rely on suspense as much as this one does. The device of telling the story in reverse (which, as I said, is negated by how much of the novel is in backstory) suggests that the real climax of the novel – the locus of the suspense – is Sean’s injury back in his adolescence. Again, we do learn what happened, but for me it was anticlimactic and disappointing.
The title of the novel comes from Sean’s memory of a Christian radio station he remembers from his childhood that liked to expose musical groups whose lyrics created Satanic messages when played backwards (and there is a clear connection between this memory and the backwards-narration of this novel, of course). One of the songs this radio station used to vilify sounds like “wolf in white van” when played backwards, and Sean remembers being fascinated by this and wondering why the wolf was in the van and what that image might portend. This works well in terms of thematic resonance and all that, but the title is yet another component of the book that led me to think it would be better than it is.
(An aside: my own backward-songs experience involves my high school psychology teacher playing a recording of the 23rd Psalm backwards and pointing out that it sounded like “I saw a girl with a weasel in her mouth.” I laughed for days after that – literally for days. I couldn’t sleep because I was laughing so hard. I can still get myself going on that image – a girl with a weasel shoved in her mouth [in my image all you can see is the weasel’s butt], side by side with my grinning psychology teacher – even now, more than twenty years later. I even remember what the garbled nonsense before that sentence sounded like; it was sort of like “Are-he bara, Sherry Zoa, I shaw a girl – pause – with a weaselinhermouth. High school psychology – good times.)
So there you go – this novel is a quick and easy read, but I didn’t like it very much. It’s possible, of course, that I would discover more layers to the novel if I were to re-read it, and I did consider doing so (it’s a quick-paced 207 pages, so re-reading it is entirely realistic), but I didn’t want to. I wanted to go read something else, perhaps something by PAT CONROY!!!, who has never been accused of not being melodramatic enough.