"Universal Harvester" Book Review
Written by Jonathan Lees
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Written by John Darnielle
2017, 224 pages, Fiction
Released on February 7th, 2017
Within the flickering spaces of a film reel, speeding along at twenty-four frames per second, lies the potential to insert our own images, altering the material for whoever sees it next. Whether prankster animators of the past splicing frames of pornography into the reels of a children’s film or marketing mavericks flashing pictures of soft drinks into a movie to imperceptibly suggest a need for a trip to the concessions, our mediums of entertainment have always been a playground for creative saboteurs. This practice continued into the current age of the internet, birthing a movement of repurposed and rearranged material that shifted its meaning and focus into whatever we wanted it to become.
Fitting that John Darnielle ditches his signature documentarian approach to music with his band The Mountain Goats to build the novel Universal Harvester by inserting his own disruptive digital dread into a purposefully cryptic four-act drama. Set in the tiny town of Nevada, Iowa, our protagonist, Jeremy Heldt, is making an honest living as a clerk at the local Video Hut. His days have order, between work and a quiet life at home with his father, going through the motions hoping not to disturb the silence that still hangs over them since his mother’s death six years prior. Little he does suggests that these patterns will change... until someone changes it for him.
"It's the tape, there's something on it."
What is on the returned VHS copies of Targets and She’s All That that disturbs Jeremy may be a mistake. An innocent flub like when I accidentally taped over a family video with John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs. When Video Hut owner Sarah Jane and Jeremy investigate further, we are made quickly aware there isn’t anything accidental about these images. A shot of nothing followed by breathing. A shot of a barn in stark black-and-white. A hooded figure forced into an awkward pose. Bodies thrashing under tarps. Sarah Jane recognizes the farmhouse in the video. It is there she will meet Lisa Sample, whose story is explored in the second part of the novel. A story involving yet another mother disappearing from existence. This time by the lure of a religious cult that helps her rupture the complacency that is weighing her down.
The impetus for John Darnielle’s novel, Universal Harvester, could be reworked into a logline you might hear rattled off at a modern Hollywood pitch session. People find spooky footage on videotape. They investigate. Bad things happen. The End. Within the pages of ‘Harvester’, the foreboding footage exists as pieces of a larger puzzle that lead our characters into an exploration of memory, loss, and obsession that goes way beyond any ghost in the machine.
“If you look hard enough, you can find stories in seemingly impenetrable tableaus.”
Within this quote, Darnielle seems to be explaining to his readers that it is worth their efforts to take their time and revel in the intricacies of the choices he makes on the page. I was admittedly dashing alongside Jeremy and Sarah Jane, eager to peek at the next horrors shock cut into an average movie and became frustrated when nearly halfway through the novel we switch perspectives to the story of Lisa Sample’s childhood. I was then jarred by a interruptive perspective switch to an undisclosed all-seeing narrator who ponders questions such as “I wonder what you see in your mind’s eye when I ask you to remember the house in Nevada where Jeremy Heldt used to live?” Our own memory is being tested and through this technique I felt even more strongly drawn towards these characters and the decisions they are doomed to make.
This is isn’t your average terror tale. It is born of an insidious horror. Something working its poison slowly. Such is the reality of a life that we can’t predict even when we strive to make it predictable. Darnielle makes no false moves in exploring his character’s mourning and memory. It is within the actions of these characters that we learn how deeply they have become lost and desperate to be discovered. These strangers, whose minds replay the same little tragedies that keep them in a state of inertia, help each other weave a lost narrative all interconnected through the strange images found spliced within an increasing number of videotapes.
Think back to some of your oldest memories. Is what you recall entirely honest; every piece a truth or has it been altered in some way? With Universal Harvester, Darnielle has created his own meditation on people who use fabrications to fill in the void of naturally created memories with the people they love. Preserving better memories by creating new ones. Inserting them into other people’s existences so those we love will be remembered by anyone but just ourselves. To give meaning where there may be none.