Wolf in White Van

wolf in white vanThe Short Version: After an incident at age 17, Sean Phillips recedes from the world and creates a series of text-based adventure games – none more popular than Trace Italian.  But many years later, when tragedy strikes in the real world because of his game, he begins to think about the choices that he has made to get to this point.

The Review: At BEA a few weekends ago, Sean McDonald (the rockstar editor at FSG who’s also responsible for helping Jeff Vandermeer shepherd The Southern Reach Trilogy into this world) said that he sees literary fiction as something where the story isn’t the most important part of the literary experience.  That there is something else at play, be it structure or language or another thing entirely, that means you’re reading not just to get from point A to point B.  This is a good thing to keep in mind when reading just about anything – but it is a sentiment that puts Wolf in White Van particularly into interesting context.

Any summary that you read will give you the rough details: Sean’s disfiguring accident, the kids who take his game into the real world, the fractured structure that bounces through time.  But none of these things get at the heart of what this novel is.  Such summaries are focused (rightly, I suppose, from a marketing standpoint) on the ‘story’ – and this novel has so much more going on than any plot you might imagine you’re in for, based on said summaries.  It is a novel about imagination, about storytelling, about decisions and decision-making – and about not understanding everything that we do, but perhaps doing it anyway.

Many who will read this (both the review and the book) will undoubtedly know what it is to be ‘misunderstood’ in some way.  The term gets tossed around so often now that it has gathered a sort of too-specific meaning: if a young person is misunderstood, this all too often implies that they have some sort of counter-culture aesthetic like ‘punk’ or ‘goth’ or ‘nerd’.  They do not quite fit in to society’s still-rather-rigorous categorizations of ‘normal’.  But everyone – from the jocks to the mathletes to the burnouts to the drama kids to everyone else – has had a moment where they could not explain something about themselves.  They had an idea that they couldn’t even explain to themselves, perhaps.  It’s the adult (or at least not-child) version of the way babies and toddlers touch things to understand them – “I did it just to see what would happen”, because that’s still the most basic way to learn.  We make a decision and set off down a new path because of it, closing off the other paths we could’ve taken – not necessarily for better or for worse but simply for.  We find out what will happen along with everyone else.

In the novel, Sean Phillips creates a text-based roleplaying game.  With painstaking care, scenarios and possibilities are mapped out and each step that a player takes leads them down a particular path – becoming ever more particular with each new choice.  This is, it seems almost too simple to say, just like life.  But Trace Italian is just a game – set in an irradiated wasteland of post-apocalyptic middle America.  And when the game (created, as games often are, as an escape route – just like novels, films, music, and other popular culture) trickles into real life, the moment because the catalyst for some questioning on Sean’s part of the decisions that brought him to this point.
But answers aren’t the point.  Resolution, if it could be called that, is not the point.  Instead, we end up left approaching the mark without ever getting to it – not unlike, as Sean explains early on, the players of Trace Italian who can fight on forever but who will, it is almost certain to say, will never reach the final room.  It exists, it is there – but it’s about the journey, not the destination.  It’s about the decision between foraging for roots or heading to the stream to get some water; those little moments that seem to have no impact at all but are, in fact, the most important moments of our lives.

I finished the book – this incredibly hyped up novel, the hype only having grown after the author’s exceptional judgements in the Tournament of Books this past year – and sat by the river, where I’d sat and read the whole thing in one go, for a good 20 minutes with the back cover of the ARC staring up at me and just looking out at the water and thinking.  I still can’t quite articulate just what it is I was thinking about, nor can I entirely articulate my feelings about this book.  I’ve tried, above, to take a stab at it – spoiler-free, as best I could, seeing as the book is exactly four months away from being published – but even that feels incomplete.  And even if I were to delve into the individual moments in the book, really reach into the guts of the novel and talk about this or that or the other thing – these moments that resonate hugely and the interconnected web of storytelling that would intimidate writers who’ve been at this a lot longer than he, let alone somebody on his first novel, but that Darnielle pulls off with an ease – but even then, I don’t think I could do it.  Because oddly enough, this book manages to capture life in a way that I don’t… I can’t quite explain, let alone analogize.  In the final moments, as the pages slip away, there is this pounding sensation of wanting answers but knowing that it is the question that drives us and it feels so universal, this moment at the end of the book.  It feels like a moment that every single person has had, to some degree.  And as Sean looks at it almost dispassionately, we see the web of possibility stretch out towards infinity.  Not only in Sean’s life, but in our own.  Those moments where you thought “what if” pulse with some kind of inner light on your own life’s timeline and they might be traumatic or they might be mundane but this novel forces you to look at them.  To acknowledge them.
It is a gift, really: this novel allows you, for a brief moment, to truly escape from the confines of your life and look down on it as some sort of omnipotent outsider might.  We are all headed for our own Trace Italian – but whether or not we get there, that’s irrelevant.  It’s about the things we do in the meantime.

Rating: 5+ out of 5.



  1. I’ve just finished the book today after waiting all this time to get it. I didn’t even think of it as a much-hyped novel — after all, it’s released in paperback! — and I’m sure I wouldn’t have heard of it if I weren’t such a massive Mountain Goats/John Darnielle fan. After such a long wait I devoured it, and I both loved it and felt unsure about it. I think it’s going to take a second reading for me to fully process the book, but your review (which I found through Goodreads) has also really helped me think through my response to the book. So, thanks.

    Also, I love the name of your blog. Mine is called Compulsive Overreader, so, similar concept.

  2. Pingback: Selected Shorts: Welcome to Night Vale | Raging Biblio-holism

  3. This book is very well-written, even beautifully written, no doubt. But I can’t get over not understanding why Sean did what he did? Just to see what would happen next? Like a 3-year-old? This seems to be what your review implies. I guess I can’t match up Sean’s sensitivity and intelligence with what he did. As a result, I can’t give this book a rating.

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