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Universal HarvesterReview - Universal Harvester
by John Darnielle
Macmillan Audio, 2017
Review by Christian Perring
May 23rd 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 21)

Darnielle's second novel is more challenging reading than his first, Wolf in White Van. Although there is a mystery, Universal Harvester is better classified as literary fiction. It has a story with central characters, but Darnielle seems more interested in formal aspects of novel writing, the pace of writing, the difference between the perspectives of the various main figures, the task of the reader in piecing together a story, and movies. At various points it seems that the narrator is telling a version of the story, and makes references to other versions, and this heightens the uncertainty of the plot. It is hard work to puzzle what is going on, giving it a thoroughly modernist feel. Darnielle himself performs the unabridged audiobook, which is less than 6 hours long. The story ends suddenly, leaving the reader wondering if they have missed out some final chapter. The pages are full of dialog and the language is straightforward. Darnielle's reading is steady but quite monotone: you have to listen carefully to get a sense of the emotional tenor of the sentences.

The events take place in Iowa, in a small town. It starts out in a video store, back when people rented video tapes. Some customers report that strange scenes appear in the middle of movies, somehow tapes over the original movie, even though the tapes are meant to be protected against that. The scenes seem to show people being restrained and hurt, and they seem to take place in a local house. The people in the video store watch these scenes and are disturbed by them and they investigate while experiencing great discomfort. They are not so keen to find out the truth.

Jeremy is the main character, and his co-worker in the video store is Sarah Jane. We seem Jeremy living with his father, who is mourning his wife, Jeremy's mother. They care for each other but they don't always succeed in helping each other. Darnielle describes scenes with all sorts of small details, infections of speech, glances, or types of breakfast cereal. Yet the overall plot is obscure and it is hard to tell what is going on. It is as if he were describing the world with a magnifying glass only, never stepping back to show the larger scene. The result is disorientation. Maybe there's a message that the goal of getting a coherent narrative is itself futile, and reality is just a series of moments. Jeremy is trying to make sense of what happened to lead the video recordings to be made and put on the video store tapes, and he has some success.

There are larger themes though. We meet other characters, going back in time, in other places. A woman meets a man and they get married. At first they live with her parents but then they move away, and she becomes more lost in life. She joins a new church and that leads to disruption. That's the key to the mystery, but there's no great moment of revelation or resolution. The world goes on with people who are isolated and sad, their lives fragile collections of relationships. But at the same time, Darnielle gives a vivid picture of how people do manage to relate to each other in small moments.

 

© 2017 Christian Perring

 

Christian Perring lives and teaches in New York.


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