Analyzing Wolf in White Van

Due: 11/13

Trauma and Thoughts

First consider these two texts about trauma and thoughts:

Trauma, in effect, issues a challenge to the capacities of narrative knowledge. In its shock impact trauma is anti-narrative, but it also generates the manic production of retrospective narratives that seek to explicate the trauma . . . culture rehearses or restates narratives that attempt to animate and explicate trauma that has been formulated as something that exceeds the possibility of narrative knowledge. . . . if trauma is a crisis in representation, then this generates narrative possibility just as much as impossibility, a compulsive outpouring of attempts to formulate narrative knowledge.
– Roger Luckhurst, The Trauma Question

And the Invisibilia episode “The Secret Life of Thoughts,” which asks the question, “Are my thoughts related to my inner wishes, do they reveal who I really am?” There are two parts to the episode: the story of a man gripped by violent thoughts, and how various psychologists make sense of his experience, and a man trapped inside his head for 13 years with thoughts as his only companion (the first part is more directly applicable, but the second part might also be of interest to you too):

Games in Wolf in White Van

We’ve spent a lot of time this semester playing and discussing video games that are in one way or another about trauma and its aftermath. And now we have read this novel which is, at least in part, about the ways in which the protagonist creates and runs a game as a response to his own trauma and the ways in which its players react to the game and its portrayal of a post-apocalyptic dystopia.

“[T]he way a role-playing game can parallel a person’s real life,” according to Carmen Maria Machado’s review, is one of the central themes of Wolf in White Van. “After all, what is life but a scrupulously detailed, real-time Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story with actual death at the end of its infinite plotlines, most of which you will never see?”

Perhaps surprisingly given the fact that the game Trace Italian is such a focus of most readers of the novel, John Darnielle explains in an interview with Gabriella Paiella at Electric Lit that the game was not present in the initial draft of the novel but was added later as its present shape came into view because he realized that Sean would go on with his life and Darnielle had to ask “what does this person then do in his life if he’s alive? […] and, you know, there’s all kinds of things you can do from home.” He goes on in the interview to describe the difference between playing Trace or other RPGsand video games: “It’s the engagement. When you play a computer game, even if it’s in the first person, you are moving some other creature around. If you do this thing, you are making a bunch of ‘I’ statements about what you’re doing. You’re kind of method acting.”

Essay Prompt

Write an essay of 750-1000 words (that would be 3-4 pages in a print format) in which you analyze Darnielle’s portrayal of trauma and games. Are there examples in the narrative of characters coping effectively with trauma? How does the structure of the novel (or the structure of Trace Italian) reflect that trauma at its core? Do you read this novel as ultimately about healing and recovery? Or do you read it as more of a “manic production of retrospective narratives,” in the words of Roger Luckhurst? Or is the novel doing something else with the way in which it portrays its traumatic events? Does the novel suggest ways in which gaming, in particular, arises from or helps to cope with or circles around or holds at bay traumatic experiences?

You do not need to refer to outside sources for your analysis, but feel free to pull in other texts when they are appropriate to your argument. In particular, feel free to bring in comparative examples from some of the other games we have played this semester. (Though ultimately your focus should be Wolf in White Van, so use other games to provide perspective on your primary text, where useful, but don’t use them to avoid grappling with the novel.)

Nuts and Bolts


Publish your essay as a page on your site. You will publish a reflective blog post once it’s up (reflection prompt to come soon).


Your essay must include direct quotes from the novel to support claims that you make. You can also quote from reviews or from the other games, where appropriate. You should always have at least as many of your own words discussing the significance of a quote as there are words in the quote itself. And you should always incorporate quotes into your own sentences — no dropped quotes. In other words, build quote sandwiches in your essay.

Make certain to include MLA-style in-text parenthetical page numbers for quotes from the novel and a Works Cited entry for each source you quote from.


You should assume an audience that has read Wolf in White Van and thought about it a little bit but who understands the novel not quite as well as you do.


Make certain you have at least one image on your page. I would prefer that the image not be the cover of the novel but that instead you take a phrase or term that your essay addresses and search Flickr to find a CC-licensed image that you can use to illustrate your essay. Make certain you have a good image credit citation on your page.

Works Cited

Luckhurst, Roger. The Trauma Question. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.

Machado, Carmen Maria. “The Monstrous And The Beautiful Dance In ‘White Van.’” NPR. 16 Sept. 2014

Paiella, Gabriella. “INTERVIEW: John Darnielle, Author of Wolf in White Van.” Electric Literature. N.p., 16 Sept. 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.

Spiegel, Alix and Lulu Miller. “The Secret Life of Thoughts.” Invisibilia. 8 Jan. 2015.


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