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lip lit: wolf in white van


In 1990, British heavy metal band Judas Priest were taken to court. Two young men from Nevada, James Vance and Raymond Belknap, shot themselves, and the parents believed the ‘reckless misconduct’ of the band members drove them to suicide. It was alleged Judas Priests’ album Stained Class contained the subliminal message to ‘do it’, which prompted the young men to finally take their lives. The case against them failed, but the idea of the responsibility of artistic consumption for behaviour remains.

Wolf in White Van is a superbly constructed novel by new author John Darnielle. The lead singer of indie band The Mountain Goats has written the story of an alienated teenager finding solace in a negative past time.

Sean Phillips is the inventor of a fantasy role-playing game called Trace Italian. The game, played by the participants through the mail, has developed a cult following. In the world of Trace Italian, life as we know it has been wiped out by a radioactive contagion. The goal is to reach the only safe haven left, a labyrinthine fortress somewhere in Kansas. Subscribers receive updates through the post that describe their current predicament, and they are compelled to negotiate their way through a post-apocalyptic dystopia. At the end of their ‘turn’ they are given a list of alternative actions  (Choose Your Own Adventure style); what happens next is determined by their choices.

Each of Sean’s players are immersed in the game, sending elaborate stories about their actions. But it all goes terribly wrong when two teenagers play the game in real life, and die as a result. Sean is blamed, and when we meet him he has endured a court case. The narrative then takes us backwards through the trial, Sean’s interactions with the teenage victims and finally, to the devastating event which left him hideously disfigured.

How many times have we heard claims that a song when played backwards contains a hidden message? This book is about the negative impact some forms of arts and entertainment are said to have on ‘weak-minded’ youth. This argument appears whenever there is a violent tragedy involving young people. However, as Trace Italian demonstrates, the choices made by the players  determine consequences both in the game, and in life. There is a limit to how much the creators of these forms of entertainment can be held accountable for the choices made by their fans.

Wolf in a White Van references this idea explicitly: Sean’s parents comment on the music he listens to and the graphic novels that he reads, the implication being that there is a link between his taste in music and his own ‘accident’ that hangs heavy over the novel.

Both Sean himself and the other teenagers we meet have trouble dealing with their issues. We never discover what these issues are: trauma associated with adolescence; impaired judgement, or something more serious. Each of the characters exercise the limited wisdom of teenagers and the narcissism and fearlessness inherent in youth, and they all take actions which cannot be reversed. But like the family of James Vance and Raymond Belknap, the parents of the teenagers in Wolf in White Van, want something to blame. And they choose the game.

This novel is as close to un-put-downable as anything I’ve read this year, and promises a fantastic future from Darnielle.

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