Friday, January 30, 2015

A Fistful of Reads 2015: Wolf in White Van


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.

14 comments:

  1. Thanks for the link! I hope I can find the time to participate a few more times this year.
    I must say I'm impressed by the number of books Irene gets through.

    I didn't know John Darnielle(from the band The Mountain Goats) is a published novelist. I also have mixed feeling about books tha give you the ending upfront, it can work, but sometimes feels anti-climactic. I read Notes on a Scandal and they wisely changed it to chronological order in the movie adaptation, the novel gives you the ending in the first chapter

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    1. Yeah, I envy Irene!

      Yeah, this is Darnielle's debut. He has a lot of potential, for his writing is fearless, but the construction issues were just overwhelming here.

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    2. I am intrigued by what you said about the fearless writing. :-) This is on my list -- I hope to get to it eventually.

      BTW, I don't work full-time because my kids homeschool, and they're getting older and can often be left to their own devices. :-P It's kind of a sweet spot between the period when they needed/wanted constant attention and supervision and the point when they get too old for me to justify working part time from home anymore. *LOL!*

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    3. Ah, well that is a sweet spot to be in!

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  2. I've never heard of this book before. I'm sorry your book club went under. :( Have you tried going on Good Reads? There seems like there's a lot of clubs there.

    I've been reading comic books lately. I guess I'm too excited for Age of Ultron. lol

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    1. I have heard of Good Reads, but never been over there. I really do need to check it out.

      I haven't read a comic in ages...some days, I miss them!

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  3. I often find book clubs start strong and then flounder but go to good reads(I have not:)). I usually read non-fiction books and I don't like the pressure of a book a week or month. It sounds like you enjoyed reading the book even if you found faults with it. keep it up

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    1. Yes, an enjoyable yet flawed read, indeed!

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  4. Excellent review! So well written and balanced. I'm sorry this book didn't really work for you. I'm also sorry your book group dissolved. The same thing basically happened to my writers' group. It sucks, but it just seems to be tough to keep people's momentum going.

    I love what you said (politically correct or not) about characters who aren't conventionally attractive. I totally agree. That is actually one of my huge peeves with mainstream American movies. Not all women in "real life" are size 4 and conventionally pretty, just as all men aren't trim, buff, and handsome. And if a character in a Hollywood movie is, God forbid, even a little overweight that seems to be focused on and/or become the butt of jokes. Or at the very least, you can be sure that person isn't the romantic lead.

    In British films, characters are so much more likely to look like regular people, in my opinion, and I love it. And I notice many wonderful British performers who, in my humble opinion, might not make it in Hollywood because they don't fit a certain image.

    Finally (stepping of my soap box :-P) thank you so much for the links and your kind words. It means a lot to me.

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    1. Yes, American mainstream cinema is way to 'looks' oriented. That's a big reason why I love foreign film. They seem to care more about representing reality than giving us a glossy image of what we all wish was reality.

      And you're very welcome for the links. I'll be sure to link your reads for February as well :-D

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  5. Good in-depth review of the book without giving too much away. The book doesn't sound like it's for me but I enjoyed your insights about it.

    I love Goodreads, it's definitely worth checking out. The book clubs are a nice feature although they aren't something I participate in but many do. One of the things I like about it best is the organization it brings to my reading. I'm always hearing or reading about this book or that that sounds interesting and my old method was to jot it down on a post-it or in a notebook and put it somewhere that I could go back when I needed a new book. The problem with that was I'd constantly lose them or have clutter everywhere, get disgusted with the mess and throw them away without realizing. Now I go to the site and add the titles to my "to read" list then refer back when the need arises. I find I read more of what interests me now than just something I grabbed because I can't remember what I wanted to actually read!

    On the other side of that you can keep track of what you've already read and rate how well you liked, or didn't like, the various books and write reviews if you're so inclined. Based on that the site also offers suggestions, which is great-I've found many things I'd never have heard about otherwise. Another plus is you can buddy up with your friends to see what they're reading and set a goal of how many books you want to read within a year and the site tracks it for you.

    I'm a big reader but not much of a book review writer, I have to either really love it or hate it to take the time. I did just read "Six Days of the Condor" which I loved and sped through in two days and wrote a quick review of it on the site but nothing close to your incisive comments.

    Being a reader though I do think you'd really like the site and find it useful.

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    1. Yeah, I really need to check it out.

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  6. Great review! The writing sounds interesting, but I'm not sure the story does, if that makes sense.

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    1. Yeah, and the sad thing is that the story itself would have been far more interesting with a less interesting writing style, if that makes any sense :-P

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