Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Wolf in White Van

“It was a simple truth, something self-apparent. Something somebody might point out to you in kindergarten: when your dad was little, your grandmother was just his mom. Like looking at a 9 upside-down. I pictured my dad as a teenager: hair combed straight and parted on the side, head cocked at the direction of a portrait studio photographer. Big smile and a far-off gaze. ‘Dad, I am so, so sorry,’ I said, and I could see the distance from the rim of the tower to the ground, all that wasted Kansas plain going on and on forever, soaking up daylight and cooling to an inky black at night that spreads out uninterrupted for so long that eventually you can’t see any tower at all.”

I finished “Wolf In White Van” a little over a week ago, and have been wanting to say something about it ever since. But I keep backing off, because I can’t fit everything I want to say about it in a reasonable form factor. Someone should read it and talk to me about it. Til that happens… “Wolf” tells the story of Sean, a 30-ish year old trauma survivor who operates a text-based adventure game via snail mail. The game details a never-ending quest towards the Trace Italian, a mythical refuge in post-apocalyptic Kansas. As the first-person account works backwards towards an (at first mysterious) accident, both the Trace and its creator become deeply entwined. Post-accident Sean exists in a world comprised of discrete moves and theoretical futures; everything is a jigsaw piece, a series of doors and alleyways, all occupying space. “Like most things [Mom] started to say about the accident, this went nowhere: there were too many places for it to go, so when it opened out onto its great vista of sad possibilities it just rested there, frozen by the view.”

It’s the first full novel by John Darnielle (of The Mountain Goats), and I was amazed at how well his lyrical sensibilities were adapted to prose. It’s gorgeously written. Like his music, “Wolf” imbibes daily struggles with unblinking earnestness and romance, taking wild leaps from realism to fantasy mid-sentence while making perfect emotional sense. There are a handful of passages which blew me away in how well they communicated the feeling of growing up and forgetting, of “belong[ing] to a tiny secret brotherhood of people who’d forgotten something hard.” Engaging, sad, and — like all of his work — extremely hopeful, it’s a book about seeking refuge whether or not refuge can ever be found. Because “It’s really just simple math, the whole of it. There are only two stories: either you go forward or you die.”

I really loved it.

Musical example 1: realism vs romantic fantasy

Musical example 2: loose associations, refocusing

Musical example 3: future possibilities, the dream of escape

Musical example 4: self-seriousness of youth