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Jeremy works at the counter of Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s the 1990s, pre-DVD, and the work is predictable and familiar; he likes his boss, and it gets him out of the house.
But when a local schoolteacher comes in to return her copy of Targets, she has an odd complaint: ‘There’s something on it,’ she says. Two days later, another customer brings back She’s All That and complains that something is wrong: ‘There’s another movie on this tape.’
Curious, Jeremy takes a look. And what he sees on the videos is so strange and disturbing that it propels him out of his comfortable routine and into a search for the tapes’ creator. As the once-peaceful fields and barns of the Iowa landscape begin to seem sinister and threatening, Jeremy must come to terms with a truth that is as devastatingly sad as it is shocking.
John Darnielle is best known as the primary (on occasion, only) member of the Mountain Goats, an indie-rock/folk band that focuses on concept albums. He has lately started making forays into prose fiction too, with Wolf In White Van in 2014 and now, Universal Harvester in 2017…
Universal Harvester is an incredibly strange novel, and a hard one to pin down. Darnielle mixes elements of horror, the Weird, and literary fiction together, with some fascinating psychogeographical observations; to pin just one genre on this novel would be very reductive, because while it draws on the tropes of each, it is not entirely of any of those genres. Darnielle uses a mounting horror of something he keeps out of view throughout the novel, an unknown that is strange and bizarre, to take what seems otherwise entirely mundane into a stranger realm; but at the same time, a lot of the novel is concerned with the ordinary everyday lives of its characters, and especially Jeremy, its protagonist, in a very literary way.
This contrast is heightened by the slow series of revelations that Darnielle allows the reader into what the horror and strangeness at the heart of the novel is; Universal Harvester doesn’t do a simple reveal, but shows corners of the sculpture, and the vague shape of it under a tarpaulin, until the reveal at the very end, which gives the reader a completely different sculpture to the one we had previously expected.
One of those revelations is as to who the narrator is; what seems at the start to be a simple omniscient third person narrator breaks in to the narrative to interject comments and questions directly to the reader, and to throw in some foreshadowing. The most fascinating way Universal Harvester does its foreshadowing is by giving alternate paths the novel could have gone; Darnielle, at certain key points, tells us about the alternative routes characters could have taken that would have totally derailed the novel, highlighting the key moments in the book, and the key decisions, especially those which look less central. It’s not a subtle approach but, because of the way Darnielle controls his narrative, it’s an effective one, and a well-accomplished one.
Universal Harvester essentially concerns a very small cast in a Midwestern town in Iowa; the whole book is written as a kind of nostalgic haze for a very specific late-90s in a very specific kind of place. The book would not work without the technology of the home VCR, and the institution of independent video rental stores; both of which have now become, fundamentally, obsolete. There’s a real concern with ensuring the reader understands exactly what small-town Iowa is like, and repeatedly, the narrator breaks off to give a kind of psychogeographical overview of the town Universal Harvester is set in. It’s an approach which occasionally meanders and goes on too long; and some of these sections feel like Darnielle is deploying special pleading, without looking at the problems of those places (the world of Universal Harvester is very straight and very white).
There’s also a nostalgia for a certain kind of person that Universal Harvester seems to think has maybe vanished; Darnielle centres the novel on Jeremy, the son of a blue-collar worker who lost his mother in his teen years, and who seems at the start of the novel to be drifting through life and somewhat emotionally repressed. It’s an interesting portrait and a very generous one; indeed, Darnielle is generous to all his characters, who he seems to have a huge amount of empathy for. The idea of that kind of youth seems to be one Darnielle has huge admiration for, and sees as a mixed blessing: the emotional repression of characters is one of the things at the heart of Universal Harvester, and the different directions it can take – positive or negative.
Universal Harvester is brilliantly written, incredibly empathetic, and doing fascinatingly strange and Weird things; but Darnielle’s nostalgia occasionally takes over the book too much, leading to some frustrating bumps in the road.
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