Thursday, June 1, 2017

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

In open spaces people begin to think about the world of possibilities, about things that might happen that they couldn't have foreseen: possibly our daughter will grow up to be president, possibly swords will be beaten into plowshares, possibly we will all climb into spaceships and go live on the moon.  The substance of things hoped for, an 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, just exactly enough of everything for the people within its boundaries.  A little drab from the outside, maybe: slow, or plain.  But who will ever see it, or learn the subtleties of its textures, the specific tensions of its warp and weft?  You have to get inside to see anything worth seeing, you have to listen long enough to hear the music.  Or possibly that's a thing you just tell yourself when it becomes clear you won't be leaving.  Sometimes that seems more likely.  It's hard to say for sure.

In his work as The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle has always had an ear for a sort of young small-town anguish.  Jeremy, the Nevada, Iowa video store clerk in his new novel Universal Harvester is one of those, toiling not unhappily in his small and unexceptional place in the universe.  When he considers "getting out" of Nevada, it's not the dream of rock and roll stardom he indulges in, but the possibility of taking a shipping job in Des Moines.

Against this backdrop Darnielle introduces a story drawn from the horror tropes of the Blair Witch Project.  Jeremy, watching one of the video store tapes, finds a scene spliced in of a woman with a burlap sack over her head, in what seems to be an empty building in a local cornfield.  Others are found by customers, each brief and chilling.  Some of these scenes are tremendously affecting, as when an unidentified hand draws a menacing face on the sack over the subject's face.

It's a great premise that Darnielle, I'm sad to say, mostly squanders.  He teases the possibility of a teen-movie partnership between Jeremy and his local crush, who's interested in the tapes, but keeps getting distracted by the minutiae--fast food restaurants and big box stores, a kind of particular American poetry that Darnielle loves--of Jeremy's world.  And then, with the mystery of the tapes still in its amniotic stages, he shuffles us off to narrative in which a woman, who is obscurely connected to the tapes, slowly detaches from her family to join a Christian cult.

Spoiler alert--it's the abandoned daughter from this narrative who's been splicing the tapes.  To what end?  No satisfactory end is given to this question, and I think we are meant to take the unsatisfactoriness as a sign of human mystery, but mostly it leaves the book feeling limp and unconsidered.  A third narrative, in which a brother and sister discover the tapes a decade after Jeremy does, shuttles the promise of returning to the story of Jeremy completely.  Universal Harvester is like a book started three times, but never really ended.

I was disappointed not to like Universal Harvester more; I love Darnielle's music and I liked his first novel, Wolf in White Van.  The two novels share a lot, including the way Darnielle sets the ghoulish against the troubling banality of the 20th century American landscape.  In Darnielle's imagination, monsters don't appear at the windows of charming New England cottages, but at, like, an Arby's.  And the meditations on small-town prairie life are some of the best parts of Universal Harvester, but they hang loosely from an ungainly plot.

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