Alright, so January is over, and my New Year's resolution to read a book a month at least lasted the first month. I also encouraged my fellow bloggers to play along, and we got a few links for you! We'll start with those, before getting to my personal 'read' this month.
Chris reviews The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Irene reviews...a lot of stuff, including Station Eleven, Winter at the Door, A Good Marriage & 1922, Captured, Dark Places, The Just City, Cold Mourning, World War Z and Butterfly Kills, and that's not even counting the guest posts and special book highlights all over her amazing blog.
And then there's mine:
So, a couple of months ago I was asked to join a book club and I was all like, that would be awesome, because I love books and reading and the whole idea of getting together with a group of people who also love books and reading and sharing our innermost thoughts on a particular book, prose, author, subject, whatever just felt so awesome to me. The book was chosen; ‘Wolf in White Van’. I ran out to find a copy and found that the local used bookstore had none, the local mom and pop bookstore had none and even freaking Barnes and Noble was sold out.
So I had to order one.
By the time my copy came in the mail, the entire book club (which was hosted online) had already read it, discussed it and kind of dissolved due to, I don’t know, no one really caring enough to keep it going. This made me sad, but I was determined to give this a go, because I paid top dollar for this book (something I rarely do) and I didn’t even know what it was about. Like, I literally thought it was about a wolf or something, or at least a van, but like…it’s about neither.
I have so many thoughts swirling in my head with regards to John Darnielle’s debut novel that I’m not sure where to begin. I guess I’ll start by discussing his writing style, because it’s the easiest thing to dissect. He has such a sharp wit about his writing, and he isn’t afraid to color in his characters with flaws that we wouldn’t normally be taken with. This is probably so politically incorrect to say, but reading about physically unattractive people feels almost painfully honest. It also feels so against the grain. I mean, authors tend to pretty up their protagonists because, as a rule, we find it hard or uncomfortable to personally connect with the undesirable. The fact that Sean, our protagonist (and first person at that) is horribly disfigured repels and yet somehow endears us. Sean, despite his obvious ugliness, feels honest. I was reminded of the work of Chuck Palahniuk, an author who has made a career out of embracing the ugly (figurative and literal) in life, and his protagonists rarely are the model of physical beauty (and if they are, he works hard to mess them up). This physical aspect is a perfect symbol of his emotional and inner person, one of almost apathetic defeat.
But this is only part of the equation.
Another key aspect to the stories unraveling is the composition or construction of the story. Darnielle tells everything in a semi-reverse order, basically giving us the end before our beginning, making us work backwards to answer the questions that the stories conclusion (or beginning) dare us to ask. There have been a few other stories that have embraced this unconventional narrative, ‘Stuart, a Life Backwards’ being one I’ve read not too long ago. This is an interesting, conceptually, narrative choice, but I can’t say that it always works out. It fares better here than in Masters’ debut, but the one issue I take with this kind of narrative is that it almost sets us up for an anti-climactic conclusion. We are always interested in where a story is going, but by giving us the end upfront and then making us dig for the beginning, we wind up ending at the point where we wish to start from, and without the right detailing, it can all seem rather empty.
I kind of get where Darnielle was going with this, and Sean is a very complex character, but his tale isn’t spun in a way that feels ultimately complete. As a character, I feel upon conclusion to know no more of him than I did on the outset, and that dampens my affections for the book. I kept waiting for some kind of revelation, some kind of distinct observation that was going to make everything feel right, feel like it made sense, and yet it just felt flat to me.
I think another thing that hurts ‘Wolf in White Van’ is that it is juggling two sets of stories that run parallel and yet neither feel completed or whole. The one story, which we’ve already spoken of, regarding Sean and his disfigurement (which is the result of a mysterious gunshot), is only half of the equation. On the other side of things we have Sean’s business, a mail-in role playing game, which has caused some unwanted media attention and a lawsuit after two players of the game went a little overboard, took things too seriously and wound up dying. Because we start with this story (this is the end) and work away from it, by the time we get to the novel’s center, we’re passed it and it all feels kind of dropped, even though it isn’t (or is it?) and so this is a moment where I feel like the gimmicky nature of the story’s narrative really hurt it. If this secondary plot-point had been introduced at the halfway mark, it would have felt more alive, but dissolving it at that point felt awkward to me.
I get the parallels, and I appreciate the way that Darnielle used Sean’s physical features, social habitat and professional decisions as a way to color in his personality without really having to do just that, but at the end of the day this felt somewhat hollow to me. It’s a well written work, in that it flows with ease, but it’s also somewhat poorly written in that it doesn’t truly connect the dots it has laid out. Or maybe it’s just that it’s poorly conceived, because despite being conceptually intriguing, this obviously wasn’t thought out very well.