Wolf in White Van – John Darnielle
YA Fiction . . .
Is more of a marketing category than anything else, so this might be the last time I separate it out.
The Carnival at Bray – Jessie Ann Foley
The Everything Store – Brad Stone
I’ve been reading The Everything Store forever, or like, since October 15, 2013 when the hardback dropped. I read it in fits and starts; too much time in Amazonland, learning the history of the company and watching it grow into a giant before my eyes, made me frustrated and tired. I can admire the swashbuckling, Machiavellian spirit of Amazon with the same part of my brain that likes to make this joke about global climate change: “But, like, guys, isn’t it pretty cool that we were able to destroy an entire planet. I mean, that’s hard to do. Planets are big.” But I’m very anti-Amazon, for all the reasons you might expect a writer to be, and reading The Everything Store was a big know-your-enemy project for me. I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to talk shit about something, you had better know all the facts or else risk tripping over them.
Besides disliking the way Amazon runs its book business, something about the company philosophy has always kind of given me off-vibes, and I think I’ve finally found the source. One of the most important insights The Everything Store offers about Amazon is the company’s understanding of a concept called “narrative fallacy.” As presented in the book:
The narrative fallacy, [Jeff] Bezos [Amazon Founder and CEO] explained, was a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book The Black Swan to describe how humans are biologically inclined to turn complex realities into soothing but oversimplified stories . . . In Taleb’s book — which, incidentally, all Amazon senior executives had to read — the author stated that the way to avoid narrative fallacy was to favor experimentation and clinical knowledge over storytelling memory.
In the margin, I wrote: “Stupid — storytelling is where we find truth.”
Be disclaimed, I’m not familiar with Taleb’s book or where the scientific community stands on his findings and reporting. But I believe in my scrawled margin note, I believe that storytelling reveals rather than conceals the truth. Fiction is where writers can take multifaceted concepts, both intellectual and emotional, and package them in such a way that a reader can take in all that complexity without diminishing or simplifying the issue, whatever it is. Reading fiction is where we amplify and stretch our minds, where we grow like little fucking spider plants in the sun. And I don’t trust a company that believes narrative distorts rather than enriches.
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Here’s a revelation that will stun no one following book news: Wolf in White Van is one hell of a novel.
When the book opens, all we know of Darnielle’s protagonist Sean (from the jacket copy, mostly) is that he suffered an accident at a young age that left him disfigured. The particulars of the incident are trickled out slowly, so by the end of the novel we know what happened, we get a sense even of the motivation, but what we really learn is how to incorporate the unknowable into our understanding of a person’s life. The narrative has the effect of a blurry image that slowly adjusts to sharpness, then snaps back into out-of-focus incomprehensibility again. Darnielle’s prose is beautiful and his first person rendering of Sean’s perspective is particular to the character without any tacky, over-the-top “voice-y-ness” (a pet peeve of mine as a reader).
I understand why Darnielle was long-listed for a National Book Award alongside Marilynne Robinson. Like many of Robinson’s characters, Sean isn’t really doing much during the course of the novel — he buys some candy and mails some letters — but the trauma at the core of his life ripples outward like still water disturbed by a thrown rock, similar to the central characters in Robinson’s Home and Gilead. Darnielle and Robinson both now how to achieve tension and create narrative drive in the midst of their characters’ stillness. I’ve always joked (I’m such a jokester in this column!) that I love Robinson even though she wants to pretend the Internet doesn’t exist, so maybe I’ve been waiting for a writer who can do what she does, but is more interested in providing a reflection for the world we currently live in. That’s not to say I won’t read Lila and probably love it, but Wolf in White Van scratches an itch I’ve been suffering from for years.
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The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley is the first novel I’ve ever read that understands the full significance of the eye roll — something I previously thought was only understood by television shows. It is also my favorite type of YA (see my note about marketing categories above), the kind that focuses on an unhappy female teen, who has a strong inner life fueled by the consumption of media. I prefer readers, but Maggie’s passion for music will do; even though she’s a rockist, I’ll forgive her because the book is set in the 90s and she loves Kurt Cobain.
As the novel begins, Maggie’s mom — a classic overdrinker with heart of gold — tears her family away from Chicago to follow her new husband to farm town outside of Dublin. Maggie loves her sometimes-terrible family, especially her uncle Kevin, who plays in a cool 90s-as-hell band, takes her to shows at the Empty Bottle, and teaches her about authentic passion for authentic art. We the readers can see around Maggie’s perspective to note that her favorite uncle emulates Kurt in more ways than one.
The Carnival at Bray is a satisfying coming of age, a teen girl whose disaffection is palpable, physical and whose dissatisfaction feels grown organically out of her situation, not forced into the narrative because that’s what YA novels are supposed to do.
This is in direct opposition to another feature of the novel, Maggie’s love story with an Irish barback named Eoin. Maggie and Eoin meet in a field (a moor? Is that Scotland?) when Maggie is drunk and lost; Eoin helps her find home in Manic Pixie Dream Boy fashion. The scene where they meet feels so unreal and ungrounded, and comes early enough in the novel, that I wondered if Eoin was some kind of nymph. But no, Eoin is just a friendly, sexy teenage boy who falls for Maggie for no apparent reason. And that’s the thing: Maggie is cool, she likes rad music, and has an attractive inner strength. There are plenty of reasons for Eoin love Maggie, but their attraction is described like Edward falling for Bella, instantaneous and out-of-tone magical. It’s like all of a sudden Maggie goes from a real person to a character following the well-worn grooves a female YA narrator is supposed to take.
Maggie and Eoin’s relationship adjusts into something realistic later in the book, but I couldn’t get over the unsteady foundation on which the love story was built. Foley wrote the rest of Maggie’s relationships as so grounded and poignant, it’s a bummer to see her get one of them so wrong.
I love teen dramas, in books and on TV, because to render a teen realistically their emotions have to be huge, dramatic, pronounced. Under-the-surface emotions, character moments that are simmering with tension, have their beauty and their place. But I believe that when we feel, no matter how insignificant the moment is outside our skin, it always is huge, dramatic, pronounced to us —perhaps us alone. Teens in stories, with their explosive reactions, seem like honest depictions of those interior emotional rollercoasters. With her teens in The Carnival at Bray, Maggie found a truth.