It’s hard to know what to say about this novel. It’s the kind of work that makes you want to ruminate afterward, to ponder meaning and meaninglessness, and to wonder if either matters in the end. Darnielle’s prose is beautiful, and Sean’s voice comes through with almost virtuosic precision on every page. WOLF is more a character piece than a plot-driven tale, and as Sean narrates his life story it flips back and forth in time, at times confusingly, to the point where sometimes you don’t know if he’s relating something that has just happened or something that happened years ago, although that is undoubtedly part of Darnielle’s design. Some reviewers speak of the hopefulness of Sean’s journey, of how he recovers from his accident through the power of imagination and the role-playing game he creates, but I don’t necessarily agree with those reviewers. Without getting into details that might spoil the journey for those who haven’t read the book yet, I’d venture to say that Sean ends up where he started.
But this novel is in many ways about meaning, or the lack thereof. When the boy in the playground in Chapter 1 asks Sean why he did what he did, Sean replies that he doesn’t know why. The boy doesn’t believe him, but Sean isn’t lying. There was no meaning to what he did, no reason that can explain it away. The novel takes its name from words ostensibly discovered by playing a rock record backward, “wolf in white van,” a phrase that, tellingly, is supposed to mean something profound but actually doesn’t mean anything at all. The epigram at the start of the novel, from Robert E. Howard’s “The Thing on the Roof,” talks about how there was no treasure to be found at the end of the adventure, nothing that could be taken away from the events preceding it. In other words, no meaning. There is no reason for what Sean did. There is no meaning behind what happened to Carrie and Lance. Nothing has meaning, meaning is nothing, and nothing is everything.
WOLF is beautifully written and, despite its moments of joy and revelation, bleak as hell. I need many more days to ruminate on its themes, observations, and epiphanies. Darnielle has written a deep, philosophical novel that I suspect I will have to read a few more times before I have peeled away all its onionlike layers.