Wednesday, April 15, 2015

What We're Reading: Wolf in White Van

Lonely and trapped in a broken, barely functioning body, Sean Phillips creates Trace Italian, a text-based role-playing game conducted through mail. For those as eager to escape the world as he is, Sean creates a post-apocalyptic landscape, where every move is a matter of choice and adventure awaits in each letter from Sean's Focus Games. As Sean conducts his game from the isolation of his small apartment, he lives vicariously through the choices of the players of his game, who've stayed loyal throughout the years despite the advances in gaming technology.   But when two teenagers decide to take the game to the real world with tragic consequences, it compels Sean to revisit his childhood and make his way to the tragedy that changed his life forever.

Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle, which was long-listed for the National Book Award and was the recipient of the Alex Award for adult books with teen appeal, has all the makings of an instant cult favorite. In addition to being written by the lyricist and lead singer of the indie folk rock group The Mountain Goats, with its own cult following (John Green is a fan), the book is also centered around a type of game with its own nostalgic value for those subscribing to geek culture. However, the reader does not have to be well versed in virtual reality games to enjoy the book, or even be an avid fan of The Mountain Goats, although those certainly serve as drawing points. Wolf in White Van is a book with serious literary value. Despite its leisurely pace, it is full of tense emotion and a bit of existential angst. As Sean moves back and forth between his current situation and his childhood, there are frequent allusions to the accident that changed his life forever. Although clues are gradually introduced, the reader is kept in a state of dreadful suspense until the very end of the book; however, this is nothing like the nail-biting suspense of crime novels. The suspense is felt on a deeper level--the feeling that goes with knowing but not wanting it to be true, until there is no choice but to accept what had been apparent all along.

Most of the literary value in this book comes from two sources - the author's unusual new voice and the treatment of the subject of media influence on youth, which has been the source of debate for as long as media and youth have coexisted. What is it that causes children and teens to "snap?" Is it penny dreadfuls, or rock music? Is it gratuitous violence in movies and video games? Is it parenting, or peer pressure? This novel does not attempt to put these questions to rest once and for all, but with a piercingly insightful voice it does attempt to show us what it is like to be a teenager - what it is like to  find an identity and deal with society's expectations, to go on despite the apparent futility of it all. Are we sometimes better equipped to deal with adversity than to face life at its most mundane? These are questions that will definitely stick around long after finishing the book.


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