Fiction offers a window of privilege into the inner worlds of others, also opening channels into our own intimate thoughts, dreams and desires. I recently read two debut novels by extremely talented novelists, John Darnielle and Rebecca Makkai: Wolf in White Van and The Borrower.
The ability to create worlds within worlds may be a coping mechanism, a testimony to the power of creativity, as each of us struggles to situate our perceptions of reality with the model of the real taught to us by our culture as well as the possibly conflicting model provided by our family of origin. In John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, we witness the unfolding of the psychological isolation of a young man, Sean, brutally disfigured by his own hand with his father’s rifle when he is an adolescent. This labyrinthine hypnotic story engulfs the reader in a powerful and fascinating novel that is written with a crystalline clarity of word and image. Imagination, intellect, and emotion are encapsulated in this story of senseless violence and brutal honesty, as Sean seeks to come to grips with his own reality–of his destroyed face, of his ability to interact with others through games he creates, and of his sense of responsibility or lack thereof, for the consequences of his choices. In this novel, imagination is at once savior and abyss, and the mind of a solitary man, rendered a hermit by his own hand, is revealed with beautiful and tragic art.
The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai is slightly less hypnotic, but equally fascinating. A quirky and humorous novel full of suspense, the author’s rebellious protagonist Lucy Hull has inadvertently drifted into the career of full-time children’s librarian in the sleepy town of Hannibal, Missouri. Her active mind and imagination predispose her to a more creative career, yet she somehow lacks the motivation to explore what the author repeatedly refers to as her revolutionary Russian cultural roots. She encounters a moral dilemma when her favorite library patron, 10-year-old Ian, decides to run away from home and takes shelter in the library stacks after hours. Ian’s own identity crisis rises from his probably being gay, and also from loving fantasy literature and generally books of which his family does not approve and will not allow him to check out. From this situation, Lucy draws on her heritage and only mildly emerges from her own torpor to take Ian under her wing. She inadvertently becomes both a kidnapper and hostage of the young boy, who is revealed to be rather manipulative. The cast of characters and storyline are all very compelling, and the quality of writing is excellent. If you enjoy suspense, moral ambiguity, and imaginative writing, you will enjoy this novel.