John Darnielle’s second novel, Universal Harvester isn’t what it appears to be. The largest chunk of the novel ostensibly posits itself as a horror novel, with a creepy mystery and increasing suspense. Twenty years or so ago, VHS movies at a small video rental store have disturbing footage sliced into them. The disturbing scenes hint at a darkness and violence worth revealing, or utterly avoiding. It turns out, though, that Darnielle gets us to read not to find out who or what is at the heart of the troubling footage, but to trace something far deeper.
Darnielle, the force behind long-running indie-rock act the Mountain Goats, shows the same verbal skills here as he has in both his music and his previous books, including the National Book Award-nominated Wolf in White Van (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). His sentences are straightforward and readable, yet potent and precise, full of striking thoughts. On a larger scale, he tends to use darker narratives to reveal something brighter, if relief is available. The story moves quickly, as much because of Darnielle’s prose as because of the mystery, which quickly becomes secondary to other concerns.
Universal Harvester isn’t actually a horror novel or a psychological thriller. Those background elements (which dissipate almost altogether) simply provide the practical grounding for meditations on loss, searching, and to some extent, small-town life. The geographic elements guide the characters, who tend to speak in short, calm—but not unfriendly—sentences. Anything beyond that, anything frantic or dramatic, violates codes of normalcy; we relate to each other in brief conversations about fishing.
But there’s much more going on behind the conversations about dinner preparations or the work day. The characters from the various time periods are each dealing a sort of loss and a resultant search. The searching, in this Midwest place of reserve, tends to the fanatic. Too much existential questing turned into a practical hunt leads to a breakdown of order, of lost jobs and relocations. There’s a reason to go home and turn your grief into a chicken dinner. Yet there are times when the truth needs to be uncovered, maybe slowly and maybe partially, but in some manner.
The characters take various approaches. Rental clerk Jeremy barely investigates the great mystery of his town. His boss quickly pieces together what has happened and even implicates herself, but at personal cost. The final family we meet, outsiders to the town discover just as much as necessary and seem wise in resisting pushing too far. They’ve also suffered the least loss, just the natural processes of a family aging. Even those, the novel suggests, can find healing in probing, as long as the probing’s done together, briefly reuniting the separated family members.
Over everything stands the narrator, who turns out to be as much a part of the story as anyone, and on his own quest to find something, probably the truth, and maybe just a proper story. Occasionally we hear our narrator propose alternate storylines. Just a few pages in: “In some versions of this story…” Writing is largely about decision-making, and this author is well aware of the possibilities in story as well as in life. “None of this is true, or maybe some of it is,” the narrator says after one stretch of speculation.
Darnielle creates a nearly omniscient narrator who shouldn’t be so knowledgeable, yet it raises questions about what we know, and even what we need. It’s no literary pondering of epistemology, though. It’s emotionally ordered. Our narrator says, connecting loss and searching with geography, “In open spaces people begin to think about the world of possibilities, about things that might happen that they couldn’t have foreseen … The substance of things hoped for, and endless open field. But there’s another region in that realm, and it’s actually the biggest spot on the map: that place in which none of this will happen at all, and everything instead will remain exactly as it is—quiet, unremarkable, well ordered and well lit.”
The code of small town life keeps everything circumscribed and navigable, but there are roads that lead to the edges, and maybe beyond. When confronted with loss, whether traumatic or commonplace, there are dueling inclinations to follow these roads and to more closely watch the borders. Both efforts can establish order or lead to a lack of sense.
In telling this broad story in a little space, Darnielle highlights the connections between location and events, personality and imagination. With his questionable narrator (part of the longest mystery of the book), he’s called not the searching, but the finding into question, all while avoiding a tiresome metafiction that lurks just outside the pages. Universal Harvester isn’t what it looks like, but part of the fun and force come in finding out what it really, maybe is.
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