Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle – Review

“It was later, lying supine and blind for days, faced with the choice of either inventing internal worlds or having no world at all to inhabit, when I started to fill in the details.”

There’s a game called Trace Italian, and you won’t win.

Like many, I was drawn to Wolf in White Van because of its author John Darnielle, lead singer of The Mountain Goats. He’s a songwriter with a cynical bent and arresting lyrics, capable of transporting his audience and making them feel a whirlwind of both positive and negative emotions through a single verse. I did wonder if his pithy style would translate to the long-form storytelling of novels, though — talent doesn’t always, after all, cross genre or medium.

Thankfully, this is a novel into which Darnielle put a lot of care. There’s a puzzle-like structure, as chapters are told in fragments from all over the protagonist’s life. Sean Phililps has a horrific head wound and a strange past that he doesn’t want to reveal, and his life is shown in snippets. He’s more than happy to talk about a game he’s created, though, a place where the rules are in your favour as long as you play thoughtfully—put another way, obsessives always have the advantage.

This isn’t a plot heavy story, and it works all the better for this. The style is slick enough that you glide through. The narrator’s musings on how, for example, wallpapers, the universe and pain are all intricately connected like threads in a blanket are fascinating enough on their own.

Darnielle uses poetic language to create unusual connections between situations and themes which my brain would never find without help. It’s gratifying to read, and gives the delightful tingle in your mind of “I got it!” which mystery novels normally provide. It also helps in convincing readers to empathise with a main character who can be more than a little bizarre.

Wolf in White Van shows the beauty in escapism, the desperate need which can build inside people for a world entirely different to our own. Escapism, after all, drives the vast majority of fiction writing, television and music. This novel doesn’t glorify it, though, and we see the dark paths that can open up when longing becomes obsession.

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The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – Review

“The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.”

A butler named Stevens is heading across post-World War II England to visit an old friend and offer her a job on his staff; this was supposed to be an uneventful trip. His sheltered worldview is challenged, however, as the stark reality that his country has changed without his consent looms on the horizon. New experiences lead to painful reflections on times past, while shame and confusion thicken like mist as the pages turn. The Remains of the Day uses a simple premise to disguise a journey into heavy themes of memory, regret, and love.

Stevens’ mind is a wandering thing, flitting between topics like a bird between trees; this gives a loose and unmanufactured feeling to the novel’s structure, while snippy, deliciously passive aggressive dialogue keeps the tone light and makes it easy to breeze through despite heady themes. Serious conversation are undercut in accidentally hilarious ways by proto-typically English repression which characters must overcome just to express themselves.

There’s a truism saying it’s impossible to truly hate something you can empathise with, and this novel makes a good argument for it. Ishiguro makes a very difficult and stuck up character seem naive and lovable through masterful characterisation, showing how easy it is to confuse repression for dignity. Actions which could be viewed as despicable seem merely sad blunders by people no more malicious than the average man.

The certainties most novels offer are muddied through Ishiguro’s subtle deflation of the idea of memory as something that can always be trusted. Our protagonist’s recollections of the seemingly most important moments of his life are revealed to be faulty, a reflection of a time long past which have been muddied by the years in between; we are left wondering how ‘true’ this story really is.

Stevens’ life was spent in duty to a higher purpose as he saw it: serving one of the great gentlemen of England. But can a life be called well lived if it was in service to a man who made disastrous mistakes? Does seeing trust as a virtue excuse us from turning a blind eye to evil when it’s performed by people we feel know better than us? Ishiguro gives no simple answers. Finishing The Remains of the Day made me truly appreciate how tragic a life lived without the ability to love selflessly really is, however; dignity seems a hollow reward by comparison.

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks – Review

“My own diagnosis of my problem is a simpler one. It’s that I share 50% of my genome with a banana and 98% with a chimpanzee. Banana’s don’t do psychological consistency. And the tiny part of us that’s different—the special Homo sapiens bit—is faulty. It doesn’t work. Sorry about that.”

The beginning of Engleby by Sebastian Faulks is deeply irritating. The narrator’s condescension and general disgust with society became boring quickly; this made me mistakenly place the novel into the groan-worthy genre of Embittered Failing Male Tells the World Why It Sucks.

I was, thankfully, wrong. This novel is a satire, one which understands its subject  (namely, self-absorbed young men) so well that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that the qualities which made me dislike the novel were intentionally over-the-top. Faulks had been constructing an arsehole-pinata, which readers get to enjoy watching him beat down over the final 200 pages of this book.

To think you know a character well and then have your perspective flipped is always an exhilarating experience, one of the most fascinating an author can provide. As Engleby went on, I came to realise that I had been attributing mistakes of the protagonist with mistakes of the author—yes, the protagonist was an insufferable, pretentious blowhard, but this was to set up an unusual narrative which is easily worth the novel’s rocky start.

Aside from the strange story-structure and protagonist, the novel has some fantastic details about life in 70s England. Faulks’ portrayal of a “gaslight grey” country still struggling to rise from the ashes of the second World War thirty years on is a convincing one, filled with nice details of dilapidated buildings and soot-smeared skies.

This is, ultimately, a fascinating character study, despite a beginning which may turn off readers who aren’t prepared to grit their teeth. The final chapter makes it all worth it, though.

 

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman – Review

“Because,” said Thor, “when something goes wrong, the first thing I always think is, it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.”

Seeing Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology in a bookstore brought back a memory from childhood: I’d been lying on a sofa, around seven years old; the sun was peeking through the curtains, and boy-me was clutching a book of myths I must have received from Christmas, feeling, despite the warm weather, very, very cold. I had been amazed at how much the book was drawing me into its icy world. There was an ornate drawing of some sort on the left page of a man going into a cave, and the text on the right talked about how brave he was for entering somewhere dangerous. That’s all.

I have a poor memory at the best of times, and most of what I read as a boy has vanished as years go on, but I remembered this. I needed to find out which story it was which had stayed lodged within my sieve-like brain after all these years, and so I snatched up both a hard-copy and an audiobook of Gaiman’s retelling so that I could stay completed immersed in these stories over the following days.

Gaiman’s soothing tone works incredibly well with bombastic stories like the Norse myths, rather than the comparatively constrained affair of his novels. His work has always been most interesting when it ventures into the surreal, such as in the Sandman comics, and so I went in optimistic and wasn’t disappointed.

There’s such a sense of fun here that it’s hard not to be tickled at nearly every page by both the delightful tone and raucous interpretations of dialogue. Characters like Thor are just delightful to be around, acting as the comic relief in a book which I expected to take itself extraordinarily seriously.

Eventually, around halfway through the middle, I realised it likely hadn’t been a cave in the story from my childhood, but a mountain-side needing to be cracked open. I realised the man I remembered hadn’t been a man at all, but a God. I realised that it had been Odin, and that the version I was now reading—where Odin tricks, fucks, and abandons a giantess—was likely very different from the one I’d found as a child. It was no less entertaining for all that.

Nostalgia plays a part in why this drew me in so much I don’t doubt, but Gaiman knows just the right way to pace a short story, and so knows just where to tweak old tales to keep things zipping along for modern readers.

I think the reason that this retelling is such an astonishing success is that if there’s one set of myths tailor made to become a comedy, it’s the Norse ones. Its characters are both endearing and frustrating, lovable and appalling; their values are so different to ours that their struggles for glory come across as comical, and Gaiman plays up these differences to tap what could be alienating for amusement.

Laugh-out-loud funny is a term which is overused, but there was a moment here which had me shaking in the middle of a train, trying desperately to look normal and failing miserably:

Gaiman’s interpretation of the tale I had loved so much as I child, in which Odin drinks the mead of poetry, ends with a chase scene. A giant has turned into an eagle, and Odin needs to quickly lose him before entering Valhalla.

The wise, temperamental king of the Gods decides that sharting (yes, sharting) mead into his enemy’s eye is the best way to handle this situation.

I really, really liked this book.

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams – Review

9780099589679

“They do the work, and he gets all the money. They think he’s a crook, and he thinks they’re fools. You can’t blame either side; they’re both right.”

In Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, an attempt to explore nature goes very, very wrong. The majority of this novel takes place in a large, isolated valley in the Colorado mountains. Blistering heat and deathly cold bear down on hunters who have gone into the wilderness searching for buffalo (a species, during this novel’s time period, nearly extinct).

The protagonist is William Andrews, a Harvard drop out in the 1870s gone west because of a longing for nature, solitude, and something more intangible. The same naive instincts which pushed him from his warm home leave him unready for this expedition. Things get difficult, and his mind begins to mimic an automaton focused on nothing but staying alive; concerns like companionship and comfort fall away into snowbanks, and his hands grow hard while his head goes numb.

Though written decades before the idea of Neo-Westerns became common, Butcher’s Crossing has many of the genre-trappings: gruff, often immoral characters; a pitiless view of nature; the idea that greed was a far more powerful motivator in the American push westward than any sort of manifest destiny. Williams, however, approaches the time period and gruff figures with his trademark tenderness, and by casting an understanding eye on this band of hunters, and despite some dabbling in nihilism, the novel finds nobility in desperation.

The snow and distance warp the minds of Andrews’ company too, and a strange sense of freeing detachment came over me in a way few books have let me feel. Williams never allows guiltless romanticization, but he captures what drew so many men into this difficult life in the first place: everyday concerns float away from these men, and subsequently from anyone reading. As a result, and this may sound like an odd description given the harsh subject matter, this novel can be deeply relaxing.

If you let your mind focus and absorb the pages describing what should be tedious drudge work, you’ll find yourself falling into an almost meditative state. This is likely the work of Williams’ prose, which is beautiful and smooth; it enhances the atmosphere while rarely drawing attention to itself with stylistic flourishes. The result is a novel which you will drift through faster than most novels claiming to be ‘page-turners’ while still having your mind guided in powerful directions you could never predict.