Jeppesen explores language in style and story
Let’s get one thing straight from the start. By titling his most recent novel Wolf at the Door, Travis Jeppesen did not intend to reference the song "A Wolf at the Door" from the Radiohead album Hail to the Thief.
In an interview with 3:AM Magazine, the author said, "I’ve heard Radiohead’s music before and enjoyed it, but I don’t own any of their albums and wasn’t aware of any of their song titles." However, it’s no coincidence that these two works share a title since they both share similar themes of despondency and social criticism.
Wolf at the Door alternates between the stories of two narrators, a dying sculptor and a serial killer. The sculptor chooses to spend his last days as a hermit. He relocates from the city to a small cemetery-side cottage where he dwells in complaint and malaise. He refuses to venture outside, and his only interaction is with the groundskeeper and gravedigger Vojtech. Although he has alienated himself from everyone else, the sculptor desires a friendship with Vojtech.
Attempting communication is difficult for the sculptor because Vojtech is deaf and mute, which serves as a thinly veiled allegory for the fallibility of language. The sculptor says, "Vojtech and I must come up with our own language. Which means compromise, of the worst sort." Jeppesen suggests that conversation is an act of compromised meaning. Even within the confines of a shared language, it is impossible to articulate one’s complete thoughts to another.
On the subject of his art, the sculptor recalls, "I once regarded language as my muse, but not anymore. Now I realize that language is a whore." The sculptor incessantly calls the reader’s attention to how he fails to convey the meaning of his thoughts. Wrestling with language exhausts him, and once while looking at his decaying chair, he says, "I wish I could describe it somehow, but have realized that all description is pure poetry, bullshit."
The second narrator, the serial killer, tires of language as well. When stalking his prey, he describes, "Her eyelashes provoked outrage, wonder and thirty-two other emotions I am too exhausted to list at the moment." Usually, serial killers are hyperaware of details and will diligently record them, but Jeppesen’s killer infers that language falls short to experience.
While the first narrator lives in the subject’s inner space, the second narrator exists in the exterior. The serial killer lives in the city and the reader is shown the world of Wolf at the Door; it is bleak and uninviting. He lives in an industrial apartment complex in an urban wasteland. Obsessed with his co-worker Rita, the serial killer collects women who resemble her in appearance and imprisons them in his cellar. He affectionately calls each woman by the name of Rita and refers to them collectively as "a petting zoo of Ritas."
The serial killer walks among the scum of the city and says, "One thing I really liked to do is follow them around. Sometimes I’d make bird noises. It’s one of my few talents, really. When all else fails, start squawking." Since language fails him, he expresses himself in a primal fashion. Throughout the novel, Jeppesen refers to animals through both narrators and declares that "human vices resemble animals more and more."
Although the novel begins lethargically, Jeppesen seasons his neurotic diatribe with bits of dark humor and linguistic games. Toward the end, this unique style has a huge pay-off when the author, having established the reader’s context, liberates the prose from conventions and pushes toward the unknown with experiments in language. At times the novel disintegrates into an associative prose that is so fragmented it must be read aloud.
Travis Jeppesen’s Wolf at the Door is a novel to be experienced and not merely read. The novel is available for purchase through Twisted Spoon Press and most major online book distributors. It is also available for lend by the writer of this column.