Wolf in White Van Essay Reflection


The final draft of my essay consisted of minor edits to my argument and adding a quote from another classmates paper and using it as part of my argument. Writing this essay gave me a better understanding of the novel because I had to form a coherent argument. In the essay, I argue that the structure reflects Sean’s inability to disconnect himself from past fantasies which keeps him from being able to effectively cope. You can read the full final draft here.


Wolf in White Van and Trauma:

I had grown receptive to dark dreams,” (Darnielle, 7) says Sean, emphasising the trauma that goes through his head every night. According to the simple definition of the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, trauma is “a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time”. Reading through Sean’s narrative as an outsider to his world, it does seem to me as if Sean is experiencing trauma through his “accident” when he shot himself. But I feel that as humans, we have a natural instinct; when something is bothering us, we try to take care of it instantly but if we can’t, then it will keep bothering us till we fix it or till we put our minds to something else. In a basic sense, what makes us feel good is the opposite of what bothers us and it acts as a getaway from all the bothering. Sean’s getaway from his trauma was his imagination, which stemmed from his passion in gaming. My thesis for the question about how John Darnielle portrays the relationship between gaming and trauma in ‘Wolf in White Van’ is that gaming often takes a person to another world inside his or her mind, which differs from the real world in terms of consequences for every action and a basic sense of attachment (or shall we call it addiction?). Sean sees his life as a video game; his imagination, his dreams, and nightmares are all part of the gaming culture he grew up into. Wolf in White Van is about adolescence isolation, desolation and the search for meaning. According to John Darnielle in his interview with Gabriella Paiella at Electric Lit, “It’s the engagement” that saves Sean from letting trauma take over his life completely. I do agree that when a person is alive and is still living his or her life, there’s something that the person does. It could be video games, music, or even another person. But there’s always that engagement with an activity, person or object that keeps the mind alive.

photo credits

The novel, however, follows a parallel structure with Darnielle narrating the events through Sean that led to his accident in which he disfigured himself. This parallelism can be attributed to the narrative structure of Sean’s game, Trace Italian and the narrative structure of the whole novel. The plots for both Trace Italian and ‘Wolf in White Van’ are reversed in their structure, as the most important event of the novel highlighted in the beginning, comes right towards the end. They are also exemplary of how Sean’s accident may have caused his teen obsession in fan culture (particularly of Conan the Barbarian novels and comics) raise the problem of an artist’s responsibility for his fans’ potential misinterpretations of the work. In this way, we come closer to finding more information about Sean’s accident as the events in the book get successively closer to the day of the accident. When Sean says “There are only two stories: either you go forward or you die” (Darnielle, 157), we can see his determination in going forward despite the feelings of alienation and resentment he feels and it also functions as a metaphor for the novel, since the reader doesn’t have much to take away from the novel unless it is read till the end.

“Star Fort in Trace Italian is similar to the Palmanova fortress.” Photo Credits

According to me, the most interesting characteristic of the novel is Sean’s game, Trace Italian, which is not only his primary source of income, but it’s more than just a game to him and to some of the players. It is also significant in the way it works traditionally—Sean sends the players their situations and they respond to these situations by mail. However, according to Sean, no one will ever win Trace Italian. The game basically consists of a pointless set of operations and maneuvers in an imagined space of defeat, struggle, and finally death and Sean’s goal is to make Trace Italian survive as an unbeatable game. Sean feels that in preserving Trace Italian, he has lost the main goal and purpose of his life as he compares it to side-quests in video games, “In video games you sometimes run into what they call a side quest, and if you don’t manage to figure it out you can usually just go back into the normal world of the game and continue on toward your objective. I felt like I couldn’t find my way back to the world now: like I was somebody locked in a meaningless side quest, in a stuck screen” (Darnielle, 48). I feel that Sean’s trauma can be felt accurately through this quote. If we think about it, he’s just a boy who was living a normal life, and one day he has an accident, which changes the course of his life from the moment onwards. He copes with his trauma through “side-quests” such as his game Trace Italian. Operating the game takes away Sean’s pain and helps him take his mind off things. However, Sean’s depression influences him so greatly and deeply that he keeps going back to Trace Italian to diminish his pain and this “side-quest” becomes so central to his life that he feels trapped in its presence.

“John Darnielle pointing at you” Photo Credits

In conclusion to this essay, I would concur with Robert Luckhurt’s definition of trauma, that it is a “manic production of retrospective narratives” because Sean’s mind does not stop bringing back the memory from the day he shot himself. Although, Sean can’t be blamed for it. When people see him, they do have an abnormal reaction to his condition as he says in the novel, “Unless you work in the medical field somewhere, you can’t really be prepared to meet me, I don’t think. It is always a surprise” (Darnielle, 56). In a realistic sense, Sean’s trauma exists mainly in his mind and it produces these retrospective narratives, as he grew up accustomed to dramatic fan-fiction narratives in comic-book culture. It’s difficult not to be swept up in the real world so visibly in the mind’s eye, because sometimes what is true can be absurd. Getting lost in art, is more appealing when you feel like you’re already lost within the realms of that art. Just like Sean, we all turn to the worlds in our minds when we feel a sense of alienation from the real world outside of our minds.

Sources Cited:

Darnielle, John. Wolf in White Van: A Novel. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Luckhurst, Roger. The Trauma Question. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.

Paiella, Gabriella. “INTERVIEW: John Darnielle, Author of Wolf in White Van.” Electric Literature. N.p., 16 Sept. 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.

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