Fandom and Shared Suffering in the Work of John Darnielle

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I wasn’t surprised to learn that John Darnielle was writing fiction. As the frontman of The Mountain Goats, the singer-songwriter’s lyrics have always felt deeply literary. Several of his albums follow storylines based on aspects of Darnielle’s chaotic childhood, and I’d maintain that some of his songs are practically narratives on their own. He’s the master of what I’ve come to consider the lyrical ambush: a sort of enjambment that wickedly and sardonically subverts expectation in the second line. Take for instance, “Old College Try,” one of Darnielle’s many doomed love songs, in which the narrator declares that his beloved’s eyes “illuminate this place / like a trashcan fire in a prison cell.” The voice in his writing is as delightfully unsettling as Darnielle’s actual singing voice, which manages to somehow be both wry and childlike, both melodic and unapologetically discordant.

This year has seen the publication of Darnielle’s second novel, Universal Harvester, and the release of an entirely guitarless album, Goths, from The Mountain Goats. As I consider these additions to an oeuvre that contains fifteen other studio albums, a novella based on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality and the National Book Award-nominated novel Wolf in White Van (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), I cannot help but find notions of fandom, obsession and connection diffusing between the media in which he writes. It seems no matter where he’s working, Darnielle is haunted by the strange burden of allowing others to access and participate in his pain.

This is what fascinates me about the work of John Darnielle, an artist who once told NYMag that he’d talk to every fan who approached him when he first started performing, even if some conversations stretched to an hour per person. In the same 2009 interview — which profiled both Darnielle and one of his most ardent fans as if the two were inextricable, as though it was impossible to understand one without the other — the songwriter related stories of how fans intercepted him on the way to the bathroom to ask about life. Often, they sought to find resolution based on the analogies between Darnielle’s songs and their own experiences. It seems that his music has managed to hit on some archetype of suffering, or perhaps some universal notion of pain, and opened up a space for fans to recreate or process what ails them. At one Mountain Goats concert, I watched a pack of teenagers dip their heads back and howl out the lyrics to “No Children,” a song about a doomed marriage shambling towards collapse, with such alarming conviction that I almost believed they’d escaped their own embittered, middle-aged spouses for the evening.

I thought of these teenagers when I listened to Goths, an album that often felt as much about his audiences as it was the goth scene, though I do not consider these groups to be mutually exclusive. “For the Portuguese Goth Metal Bands” considers — half brag and half lament — “there’s not so many of us / but you don’t know any of us.” “Rain in Soho” promises listeners that “there’s a club, if you’d like to go / you could meet someone who’s lost like you / revel in the darkness like a pair of open graves.” It’s a play on The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?”: “there’s a club, if you’d like to go / you could meet somebody who really loves you.” The substitution of “lost” for “love” seems a gesture of analogy, a declaration that there isn’t all that much of a difference between sharing in someone’s struggle and loving them. It’s difficult not to imagine Darnielle as the “someone,” a member of the “us,” and his concert a form of revelry in their shared darkness.

It’s a notion I considered as I read Wolf in White Van, a novel that centers itself around this kind of imitative, transferrable catharsis. Darnielle’s debut follows Sean Phillips, the creator of Trace Italian, a choose-your-own-adventure game in which players navigate a post-apocalyptic American heartland by communicating their moves via snailmail. In return, Phillips writes up responses detailing the consequences of players’ choices, to which players respond with their next move, essentially ad infinitum. The game is the product of the protagonist’s isolation after a brutal accident in his youth permanently disfigures his face. A combined effort of denial and painkillers created the world of Trace Italian and allowed a bandaged, delirious, temporarily blinded Phillips a means to escape the reality of his circumstances. Through his adulthood, Trace Italian is both a source of income and raison d’être, and Phillips develops an unusual — if not a little stilted — affection for its longtime players, some of whom have been wandering the game’s desolate topography for years. However, when two particularly dedicated players attempt to recreate the game in real life with disastrous consequences, Sean is made to exonerate himself of the blame.

Phillips’s disfigurement is a sight of both disgust and fascination. It’s the ultimate form of vulnerability, suffering laid so bare it’s almost vulgar. It drives a guy in a parking lot to ask for permission to touch his face, and Phillips consents. It gives birth to Trace Italian, a game in which Phillips allows individuals to explore the landscape of his isolation in search of some unreachable safe haven. It’s impossible not to be reminded of Darnielle the songwriter. I think of him plumbing his complex relationships to his drug-addicted friends and relatives to create the album All Hail West Texas. I think of him, hand pressed to the door of some venue’s restroom, bargaining with his bladder for some time to comfort a teenager who’s navigating the same. I think of the teenagers freezing out in some vast, barren stretch of Kansas in search of Phillips’s Trace Italian and the teenagers belting out “No Children” with some [un]related pain and I consider that the only difference between the two is that the second is inordinately safer.

Almost comically apt, Phillips considers that “there is something fierce and starved about first ideas.” Wolf in White Van is a debut that thrums with urgency over a question we’ve asked of the work of Marilyn Manson and John Lennon alike: how accountable are we for the ways others respond to the things we create? It’s an anxiety Darnielle still tools with in Universal Harvester, a horror homage of a novel that follows Jeremy, an employee at a small-town Iowa video store in the 1990s, who responds to customers’ complaints of harrowing snippets of violent home videos spliced into VHS copies of Targets and She’s All That. As much a meditation on the trope of the missing mom as a salute to the cornfield thriller, Universal Harvester ruminates on the ways in which people interact and identify with suffering laid bare. The work is littered with individuals attempting to situate themselves within the narratives of these snippets, revealed — without revealing too much here — to be reproductions themselves of a different, undocumented pain. Darnielle interrogates the act of grieving by recreating suffering you have not endured yourself, presents the theory that it’s both intimate and removed, both perilous and safe.

It’s the kind of space John Darnielle creates in the concerts I’ve seen both live and recorded, where he takes the stage as if he’s walking in the front door. He treats San Francisco’s Swedish American Hall like a friend’s living room, opening the show with a warm, shared chuckle with the audience and a “hey, check me out, I’m on my stool again.” On the meticulously maintained Mountain Goats Wikia, fans archived Darnielle’s comments on “Broom People” at one concert to be about how he survived adolescent bullying by thinking about his girlfriend mid-asskicking. The transcription includes “{audience cheers}” as though it is their victory as well. In the notes for “The Young Thousands,” he discusses buying heroin in a specific alleyway in Costa Mesa to a New York City audience by beginning, “if you find yourself in Costa Mesa…” The framing of his experience in the second person turns up with some frequency among entries on the group’s Wikia, not so much an effort to obfuscate or depersonalize as to find some form of familiarity. As he observes in a rather wry nod to the opening theme of Cheers in the song “Autoclave,” an upbeat anthem of the serially self-defeating, “sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.”

Though I in no way consider John Darnielle to be the only artist who negotiates his connection with his fans through sharing his pain, I appreciate the way he has interrogated this dynamic in his recent work, both lyrically and in prose. Despite their discussion of the various anxieties and risks associated with voluntary vulnerability and the intimacy between artist and audience, Goths, Wolf in White Van and Universal Harvester ultimately point to some degree of healing. After all, “Rain in Soho” posits that there is “no greater love than to lay my life down for a friend.” All things considered, I’d replace “down” with “out”; I’d allow for a generous definition of the word friend.

Image: John Darnielle photographed by Brandon Eggleston.

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