John Darnielle (Lalitree Darnielle)
Universal Harvester is a novel of fragments, a collection of broken pieces that slowly coalesce into a larger meditation on grief and small-scale survival. It is a story about loss, splintered across generations, much like the altered videotapes at the heart of the book.
Jeremy Heldt works at the local Video Hut in the small town of Nevada, Iowa, where copies of Targets (the 1960s thriller starring Boris Karloff) and She’s All That (the late nineties high-school rom-com starring Freddie Prinze Jr. and Rachael Leigh Cook) have been corrupted by some unknown force. A few customers complain to Jeremy, an aimless young clerk, about the tapes. Nothing is exactly wrong – not quite – but something is definitely off; midway through the movies, the tapes cut to a static black-and-white shot inside a barn, with someone breathing, softly, in the background.
John Darnielle, of the Mountain Goats indie-folk music fame, does not provide any easy answers in his sophomore novel. Much like in 2014’s Wolf in White Van, which was long-listed for the National Book Award and appeared on numerous “best of” lists, Darnielle has no use for a linear structure. He hits pause and then fast-forwards the plot; he rewinds and then turns off the sound. The Iowa he conjures in his prose is a sparse place – nothing much happens and no one asks too many questions – and Darnielle’s language mimics the landscape. His narrative voice is measured, controlled and not prone to ostentatious flair. It hints at older, darker things left unspoken, an inability to express oneself beyond social nicety. Revelations are told in pieces, their sum left to the reader’s imagination. The histories of people are told by their movements, their jobs, the towns that shape them or the places that they leave behind. Moments of high drama are often played down, faded out, or rendered as unremarkable by the passage of time and the failures of memory.
Darnielle’s narrative moves between the small and disparate lives connected by sputtering VCR. Sarah Jane, the video-store owner, finds herself sucked into the mystery of the tapes, drawn to their maker. Stephanie, one of the local customers, takes a more rigid approach to her investigation, mapping out the possible local origins of the strange scenes, putting off a move to San Francisco in the process. Even Jeremy’s father, still mourning the loss of his wife, finds himself haunted by what he believes is her image trapped on a VHS. Even as time skips ahead, those who find the tapes only uncover small fragments of the truth.
All of these characters – Jeremy, Sarah Jane, Stephanie – circle the mysterious maker of the tapes; the trauma they hint at only manifested through the power of suggestion. The images on the tapes offer a glimpse of someone else’s grief – a long and lasting dread. They offer up moments, rather than a narrative. Most people probably wouldn’t understand what they were seeing if they did, by chance, slide a copy of She’s All That into an old VCR and press play. A woman running toward a road. A man trapped under a tarp. A camera lingering over a man eating from a garbage can. Little seeds of truth buried down between the bigger budgets and A-list casts of studio productions. A mother stolen away from her family by a man who taught her a new way to believe. A daughter trying to make sense of that loss through art. These are tiny spurts of homemade revelation that no one will recognize in the dark unless they are hunting for them.
Throughout, Darnielle repeatedly stresses that this novel is just one version of the story. Like the Gospels, there are variations on a theme – alternate versions of the same film corrupted by their environment. Darnielle refers to different Jeremys, different Sarah Janes, different outcomes, as if this story could be told another way, before returning to the timeline he has chosen.
This is not the novel you’re expecting. No great evil is revealed here. The eerie flashes on VHS tapes of hooded people tied to camping chairs in an empty shed don’t lead where you think they will. This is a smaller, sadder story. Universal Harvester warns that the art you make may not matter to anyone but you. The story you tell may not be heard. Your grief may go unheralded. The moment of truth you captured from a stranger down there in the darkness, breathing heavy behind the camera, may go undiscovered on a shelf in a Goodwill store for decades, maybe even eternity, unacknowledged.
Andrew F. Sullivan is the author of the novel Waste.