There is, for those who may not know, a legitimate difference between a maze and labyrinth. A maze is a complicated series of twists and turns designed to allow its follower to choose a path and direction. A labyrinth, on the other hand, is a fixed path which leads to a definite center. The course is predetermined and the road easy to navigate. There is no promise, of course, that that labyrinth itself is an easy journey. After all, the most famous labyrinth, created by Daedalus to hold the Minotaur, was so complicated, he himself barely found his way out.
In John Darnielle’s first novel, Wolf in White Van (I’m counting his Masters of Reality 33 1/3 book as more of a novella), he has created the second greatest labyrinth. At the center of his tale is Sean Philips, disfigured from a violent accident, who is the creator of Trace Italian, a turn-based RPG played via the mail. The game allows Sean minimal, but essential, contact with the world outside and the ability to control the fate of those adventurous enough make the first of numerous scripted choices. Players enter a pre-constructed post-apocalyptic world set on finding refuge at the heart of a monolithic fortress called Trace Italian. However, when two stalwart adventurers, believing Trace Italian to be more than mythological, attempt to find it, Sean is forced to defend his creation and, in turn, retrace the steps of his past.
Like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Wolf in White Van takes various chronological leaps and slides which create a sense of distortion; like the pieces of a half-remembered life. Nothing in its place. The effect of this jumbled plot works both for and against the work. As a strength, it grips the reader and compels them to, like players in Trace Italian, mark their moves and push on, uncertain of what exists beyond the next turn. As a weakness, it can sometimes be too disjointed and sections need a quick reread in order to reestablish literary footing.
At the heart of the novel exists a beautiful tale of choices and actions. Each player in Trace Italian pushes on under the illusion that they control their own fate while traversing an essentially predetermined road. Sean reveals to us that no one will ever reach the safety of Trace Italian. None of us can ever change the outcome of the myriad of life’s puzzle pieces and no matter what order we assemble the fractured picture, the image will always be unchanging. But that is in the game. In reality, Darnielle suggests, those decisions aren’t as scripted. The reader’s journey to the center reveals something much more unnerving about Fate and pathways. But you’ll need to walk the labyrinth yourself to discover it.