Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
You know, there’s a lot to be said for the pre-Internet era. You know, the time before streaming services, when people had to rent videotapes, and what was known was limited by hard-copy research, or – more often than not – relied on hearsay and rumour, at least as far as local history was concerned.
John Darnielle’s second novel is a little bit of a love story to the period, while also managing to be a ghost story, a thriller, a tribute to the boredom and joy of a life lived small, as well as a meditation on movement by spirit. It’s a consideration of how history is made, and how those same records can be viewed differently in the light of a little information.
On the face of it, Universal Harvester is the story of what happens when a video store schlub discovers weird interruptions have been spliced into rental tapes. Lost footage-style interruptions, with a distinctly strange cast. Is it a virus? A snuff film? A testament? How do you decide what to do?
And what does it mean, especially in a life circumscribed by routine?
The answer is circuitous, and as twitchy as a poorly-tracking tape. There’s snatches of clarity throughout the text, which offer both hope and horror in turn. Can something awful really be something benign? How much stock should you put in appearances? And how far should you push something?
It seems a fair whack of readers (at least on Goodreads) seem to have a problem in the way that Universal Harvester doesn’t provide conclusive explanations of what happens in the work. I’m not sure if the problem is the jump-cut nature of storytelling that’s used – we’ll often shift from the past to the present with little warning, and the sequence of the book is mostly forward, but with whole sections dropped in like bookmarked parts of a conversation that one refers to once the current thought is out of the way. I didn’t find this a problem, but I am a fan of the author’s writing in both song and prose: I really liked Darnielle’s first novel Wolf in White Van, which had a similarly gnomic quality to it, though I feel this one hangs together much more.
I dunno, I guess those people probably wouldn’t like the inherent mysteries of most Mountain Goats songs, either. There’s enough explanation here to be going on with, and I think people searching for it to be spelled out are probably missing a key idea to the work.
Look, I think if you’re even passingly interested in Darnielle’s turn of phrase – and it is excellent – then you’ll enjoy this book. It’s another book where the author’s interests have been given a bit of a longer leash – here, it’s the frangibility of history, either magnetic or cerebral – and it’s a delight to read. The sense of place is intense, and the way horror intermingles with sadness and resignation are, oddly, delightful.