by John Darnielle
Universal Harvester is the second novel by John Darnielle, frontman of the Mountain Goats. The Mountain Goats is my all time favorite band, so I knew I had to pick up Darnielle’s book. His first novel, Wolf in White Van, is on my shelf to read soon (Neal has read it already). Read on!
The story is divided into four parts that naturally coalesce at the end. There are three timelines: 1970s, 1990s, and, presumably, today. It starts in the 1990s in a video rental store. The video store clerk, Jeremy, is a kid trying to figure out what he’s going to do in life. He and his dad have held it together after his mom died in a car accident years earlier. Darnielle has many descriptions of a quaint, simple mid-west life.
It’s nostalgic and comforting to read about the old video rental days until a customer, Stephanie, comes in reporting disturbing content on one of the rentals. It turns out several of the movies have spliced-in home footage-style content. Jeremy, Stephanie, and Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, all become obsessed with figuring out what the content is, who spliced it in, and why.
In the second part, you are all of a sudden transported to the 1970s and you follow a young couple with a toddler. Irene, the mother, sees what appears to be a homeless man picking through garbage one day. She gives him her leftovers and he gives her a card with bible verses on it. She’s intrigued and eventually joins the homeless man’s church, where he preaches. It’s more cult than church, and she finds herself losing weight, leaving her own community, and disappearing one day. Her daughter, Lisa, is left to grapple with her loss.
Part three brings grown up Lisa, Jeremy, Sarah Jane and Stephanie together. We find out more about the tapes, but never really get the full understanding. Finally, in part four, a present-day family has stumbled on the tapes, including ones that feature Jeremy. James and Abby, the kids of the family, are greatly disturbed by the videos and attempt to find Jeremy. Jeremy wants nothing to do with anything, but he understands why James and Abby just couldn’t leave it alone. You get more color in this part on Lisa’s life and her father’s search for Irene, and on some level, I think we all get it.
They say sophomore novels are hard to write and often not very good. But I found Universal Harvester an incredibly interesting exercise in writing. This book is about people in our lives that go missing, or it’s about people who have lost their mothers, or it’s about just how far we’ll go to remember someone we’ve lost, or to find them. You decide.
Just as everything in Darnielle’s music is deliberate, I think Universal Harvester intentionally leaves plot holes and confusion. Every time you get to a part during which you think you’re going to get answers, or where you think there will be a satisfying in-depth explanation of what is happening, Darnielle pulls back. You don’t get it and you’re left also feeling like something is missing. He splices in scenes that seemingly don’t make sense, just as scenes are spliced into the movies.
Throughout the book, Darnielle also breaks the fourth wall. A first person narrator suddenly snaps you awake. I felt creeped out and watched, just like many on the types if they knew they were being taped. I knew the narrator was always in the background somewhere, waiting to set up an explanation or shed light on an experience just when I didn’t want to get to know a character any better than I already did. A faint shiver up the spine.
I swear I heard some Mountain Goats songs while I read through some of the descriptions of the mid-west. And West Covina makes a sweet cameo. If I read it again, I’m sure I could pick up places, plot lines and other features of what I know and love about the Mountain Goats. But what I think I love most is that nothing is by chance. Darnielle is smart and thorough. If something feels off, it’s supposed to. If you’re not satisfied, you now know how each of the characters feels trying to unravel the mystery of the tapes. You’re beat up along the way and ultimately left with nothing.
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