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February 27, 2015

Reading List: Quiet Thrills

Ahead of appearances in the coming week by John Darnielle and Roxane Gay at Adelaide Writers’ Week, Connor takes on their latest respective works and finds two very different stories that share a penchant for layered meaning.

  • Words: Connor Tomas O'Brien

The profusion of song lyric dissection websites, like Genius and SongMeanings, suggests that we are both enamored and rattled by music that doesn’t make complete narrative sense.   

When we turn to music for its lyrical content, we seem most drawn to songs that resist straightforward analysis, and that are open enough to interpretation that we can make them our own. There’s not a lot I enjoy more than reading a fan squabble over lyrical allusions and insinuations on these sites. They battle to find the interpretation that comes closest to unlocking the true meaning behind each track and each song becoming a kind of puzzle for fans to band together to solve. The best lyricists are aware of all this, playing to our impulse to dissect by dropping enough crumbs to lead fans to believe a song might be soluble, while keeping things sufficiently dense and hazy to ensure a track can still reveal something new on the hundredth – or thousandth – spin.

John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats) is a master contemporary lyricist, right on the level of Nick Cave or Destroyer, every song referring back to every other, creating tight narrative grids that characters pass into and out of. Darnielle’s debut novel, Wolf in White Van, is, in some sense, a logical and obvious extension of that musical work. 

Ostensibly, it is the story of Sean Phillips, an isolated figure suffering from a facial disfigurement, and creator of ‘Trace Italian’, a role-playing game played through the postal system. For some readers, this synopsis alone will sound enticing, as it should, but Darnielle’s songs have always resisted this kind of reduction, and Wolf does, too. 

The title of Wolf in White Van itself refers to the idea of Satanic backmasking, or the ways in which messages buried sufficiently deep within rock songs could work to subliminally alter behavior, which should give some clue as to Darnielle’s intentions in the creation of the work. Those expecting a dark psychological thriller will not find themselves disappointed, exactly, but they will find their expectations continuously subverted. Unlike any conventional thriller, but much like a very well-crafted pop song, Wolf in White Van rewards those who return to it for another go. 

Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State is, in some ways, rather similar to Wolf in White Van. Both novels masquerade as thrillers, but in the place of the myriad plot twists requisite to conventional page-turners, move in unexpected directions. 

After Mireille Duval Jameson is kidnapped outside her family home in Haiti, in front of her American husband and son, her mental state unravels as she is abused by a man she knows only as ‘The Commander’. As with, say, Emma Donoghue’s Room, much of the narrative push revolves around the reader’s desire to see the protagonist escape their forced captivity, but the genius of both works is that, once this wish is granted, we are forced to recognise that our conception of freedom is naïve – once captured, we remain forever captive. As with Wolf in White Van, which similarly deals with a horrific central incident, An Untamed State interrogates the notion that tragedies tend to erase themselves over time. Gay walks the reader through stages of response to trauma – a desire for retribution, to a desire for forgetting, to misplaced anger, to forgiveness – in a way that feels both psychologically true, but unreductive. 

Ultimately, as with Wolf in White Van, what is perhaps most interesting about An Untamed State is how unexpectedly elegant it is. There is a lushness to both Darnielle and Gay’s writing, an incredible richness of language, that enables us to find some degree of disturbed beauty in much of the suffering the characters experience. Darnielle, of course, is familiar with this: many of his most stunning songs are – on only slightly closer inspection, no lyric dissection website necessary – really the most horrific. It’s exactly this kind of layering that makes them hard to pin down, and it’s this quality that, too, makes Wolf in White Van and An Untamed State the kind of works worth returning to.

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