Double Take: John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester

Book critics Tobias Carroll and Ilana Masad go in depth with John Darnielle’s highly-anticipated second novel

Welcome to Double Take, a new literary criticism series wherein every month a highly anticipated title goes toe-to-toe with two book critics as they pick apart and discuss its innermost themes, its successes and failings, trappings and surprises. The first to go through the ringer is Universal Harvester, the second novel from John Darnielle. The novel takes the reader deep into 1990s small town life right as everything normal is upturned, every detail rendered suspicious.

Jeremy Heldt works at Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s a job that gives him everything he needs — the monotony, the solitude — to dispel the grief of his mom’s death six years ago via a car accident. Days run together and life continues that slow comforting crawl until a customer returns a tape with the complaint of it containing “another movie.” Turns out the customer wasn’t lying: Mysterious footage begins showing up on more than one tape, footage that has been deliberately altered.

You better believe there’s more to the “mystery” than what’s on the surface, and that’s not even factoring the striking resemblance to The Ring. As both Ilana Masad and Tobias Carroll will attest in the following conversation, the experience of reading Universal Harvester can be best described with the phrase, “results may vary.”

Ilana Masad: Reading Universal Harvester, I noticed two things: one, the book felt incredibly masculine to me, very self-aware and nodding at its own self-awareness. Second, the book was built on a false sense of mystery, which really frustrated me. We were dropped so often into scenes after some sort of action or conversation had happened, so we almost never heard the actual contents of these conversations. All reveals came in sideways and vague. The writing was good, sure, but the premise and plot felt so vague to me. I’m not sure I’ve unpacked everything quite yet, though.

Tobias Carroll: I liked both of Darnielle’s previous forays into fiction, the novel Wolf in White Van and the novella Master of Reality, but my reaction to this has been different. Less immediate. I don’t know if that comes down to the structure of the novel; the two earlier books had very formal, rigid structures that let Darnielle work with perceptions of time and recurring imagery. In both cases, for me, it paid off. I can understand why he might have wanted to move to a less formal structure here, where the narrative moves backwards and forwards in time. Yet there were a few places where I found myself admiring that decision more than I actually liked the end result, which isn’t to say that I disliked it: There were a couple of elements that I found incredibly powerful —

The acknowledgements began with Darnielle stating, “This is a book largely about mothers,” which threw me a bit. I also found that the novel’s more masculine elements tended to dominate. I mean, the first part centers itself around a young man adrift in the world and struggling to find his motivation, which seems pretty indicative of a certain kind of story that we’ve probably each read a fair number of times. Admittedly, the fact that Jeremy eventually recedes from the center of the narrative could be seen as a critique of this; I’m curious about what you thought of that aspect of the structure.

I was also curious to see what you thought of the time period in which it opens, where VHS tapes are still in abundance, but are slowly giving way to DVDs. I have a weakness for books that nod to film history–Steve Erickson’s Zeroville is a recent favorite–and I found that there was something interesting going on with that aspect of the novel, for sure.

“I have a weakness for books that nod to film history.”

IM: I haven’t read Darnielle’s previous work, so I can’t speak to it at all. I’m going solely off of my understanding of Universal Harvester. I do think it’s interesting to note that Darnielle was trying to escape the structure he’d put himself into before — it makes sense in terms of his trajectory as a writer.

I was also befuddled by that note in the acknowledgments; as the book to me felt like it wasn’t about mothers at all. It was about the loss of mothers. Which is very, very different. Motherhood is many things — but its absence is something entirely different and has nothing to do with it.

I wonder what you thought about this.

Jeremy receding from the center of the narrative never felt like a critique of the masculinity at the center of the novel to me, though I can see why you might read it that way. His presence was the only thing that truly grounded me to the story. At the beginning of Part Two, when Jeremy recedes and a new character history emerges, I felt unmoored. It seemed like every time we got near to receiving an understanding of someone or something, Darnielle would unmoor the reader. Some writers are able to do this incredibly skillfully — David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas for example — but in this case, it seemed like a gimmick or an attempt to say something very obvious in a very deep way: that we are all unknowable, strangers to one another, our ideas about other people largely imagined and reflective more of us than anyone else. Does that make sense?

“It seemed like every time we got near to receiving an understanding of someone or something, Darnielle would unmoor the reader.”

I enjoyed the nostalgic quality of the VHS tapes, but unfortunately, as I’m not a film buff, I recognized very few of the movies and wondered whether there was a significance or connection between the films described and the spliced scenes put into them. In other words, would a reader who recognized and knew all the films be able to pick up another meaning from the book that a pop-culture-idiot like me couldn’t?

Another thing that was interesting was the use of fragmentary descriptions to evoke the reader’s imagination. Personally, for quite a while, I thought the tapes themselves were either showing some sort of cult ritual or else were moments in some kind of torture porn/crime. I still don’t really understand what was on the tapes or why they were created, nor whether they’re meant to convey a coping mechanism as opposed to artistic expression. What are your thoughts on this?

TC: I’m with you in terms of finding the book to be more about the absence of motherhood, definitely. More broadly, absence seems like a recurring motif, from Jeremy’s boss being increasingly absent to–in a much broader sense–the fact that the video store itself, in the late 1990s, occupies a space that’s soon to become an absence in and of itself. About a block from my apartment in Brooklyn, there’s a vacant storefront that once housed a really good video store, so this metaphor might be projection on my part — but I assume that much of the novel is set in the recent past was done for a reason.

“[M]ysterious videos act as revenants, harbingers of one character’s inescapable feelings of guilt.”

The choice of films affected seemed strange to me, and more noticeable by the absence of one particular film. The videos referenced struck me as a blend of highbrow and lowbrow: Targets and She’s All That and Bloodsport don’t exactly have a lot in common, but it seemed to me that Darnielle was definitely not just going for the most obviously 90s choices here. (For my money, that would be the Freddy Prinze, Jr. vehicle She’s All That and the James Van Der Beek vehicle Varsity Blues.) So, for me, it seemed strange to not see a nod to David Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway, in which mysterious videos that should not exist and which seem to channel unspoken impulses and horrors play a significant role.

Slight digression: the film that this reminded me even more of was Michael Haneke’s 2005 film Caché, in which a middle-aged Frenchman is haunted by videos that tap into long-suppressed feelings of guilt that he had stemming from his youth. It’s never clearly stated whether the videos are being created by one of the other characters in the film or if they’re a supernatural manifestation of the protagonist’s repression. But it’s unsettling either way.

I found myself thinking back to both of these films (as well as the Doctor Who episode “Blink,” but that’s a whole other digression) as I read the novel. In both of those films, the mysterious videos act as revenants, harbingers of one character’s inescapable feelings of guilt. Here, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

In terms of the fragmentary nature of the story, I wonder if that dovetails with one of the stylistic moves that Darnielle featured a few times: the references to how certain events are only one of many versions of a particular story. I’m not entirely sure that this entirely worked for me; at the same time, I appreciated the idea of these relatively ordinary lives being given a quasi-mythical treatment. (I read John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat for the first time a month or so ago, so that juxtaposition is one that interests me from a narrative point of view.)

At the same time, there’s also a blend of ambiguity — which you brought up in terms of the videos, among other places — and stark realism here, and the sense of the ground rules constantly changing left me a little at a loss. I agree with you that David Mitchell can (most of the time) pull this off; I’m also a big fan of Ali Smith’s work, and I’d also cite her as someone who does that really well. But there are a lot of elements here: it’s both a realistic novel of small-town life and a borderline-metafictional work about narrative, and those elements didn’t always coexist neatly for you.

What did you think of the novel’s sense of place? That was, for me, one of the novel’s stronger elements. And I’m also interested by the religious subplot, especially in light of Darnielle talking recently about how his views on faith have changed.

IM: I love that you have a personal connection to the video store being gone. I have such odd, fond memories of VHS tapes (my mom has kept many of the ones from my childhood for me, even though they’re largely useless). With regard to the absence of David Lynch, I wonder if that was precisely because of how obvious the connection would be. There is something quite Lynchian in the novel — or perhaps an attempt to be Lynchian, to not provide answers but to expect a reader to nevertheless get it.

I agree the videos aren’t being used here as harbingers of guilt, but… aren’t they? In a way, they pull on the moral heartstrings of whoever watches them, creating a sense of obligation to do something about them, to figure them out. They cause a curiosity that should be — and is for some characters — intense. More intense, I’d say, than my own response to the mystery. Partly, this is because a description of a film likely will never be as effective as the film itself, but partly I wonder if it’s because each of the characters has a relatively simple life. They all seem like they’re ripe for some intrigue, something to excite them and take them out of their small town numbness.

“I agree the videos aren’t being used here as harbingers of guilt, but… aren’t they?”

Nodding my head vigorously at the juxtaposition of the realistic and mythical nature of the narrative not always working very well. I found the narrator’s insertion of themselves into the story somewhat of a cheap trick: a way to make the reader feel that there’s something ominous. In that sense, I felt like I was constantly being let down, my brain willing to go farther into what could have been a truly horrifying or difficult story — maybe that speaks more to my affinity with drama than Darnielle’s skills, though.

I do wonder about the place. Oddly, I wish I hadn’t read the book in New York City, where we both live. I’m currently in a small town in Texas for a residency, a town that had an oil boom at the end of the 19th century but deteriorated in the latter half of the last century. Being here, in the quiet of the town’s streets and stores, seeing the nature of the darkness and big sky, I wonder if I’d have enjoyed the novel more if I read it within the kind of place it occupies rather than in the bustle of urban life. I’ve found myself thinking back to the book’s place since arriving here this morning, and so I have to agree with you: sense of place was one of the strongest for me, and perhaps why I wished the novel would have settled into a more dedicated sense of realism.

“I felt like I was constantly being let down, my brain willing to go farther into what could have been a truly horrifying or difficult story.”

The religious subplot was one of the stronger ones for me; yet, once again, it felt like too little, a kind of sidebar, and that made it less effective. Perhaps having just read The Girls by Emma Cline was part of that — cultish attitudes were so central, and I didn’t really see how and why the mother was drawn into Michael’s circle in Darnielle’s book, so it felt a little unbelievable, a bit too convenient. How did you feel about it?

TC: I can definitely see the appeal of reading this novel in a small town. I grew up in New Jersey and have lived in New York since 1999, so my default image of a town tends to be a fairly densely populated one. I was in Iowa for the first time last spring, and it took me a little while to get used to having the ability to look in every direction and see a lot more land, a lot more space.

As for the religious subplot, I found it pretty compelling, but also would have liked even. The tension and progression felt very tactile in a way that — to some extent — Jeremy’s own inner struggles did not… which might be the point: contrasting this everyday decision with something ostensibly on the level of the soul. But with some time, this book seems to be all about strange and unlikely contrasts. After the ambiguity and surrealism of the first part, the novel’s second part opens with as declarative a sentence as you’ll see:

“Lisa Sample was born in Tama in 1969.”

I’d say that I have more mixed emotions about this than either of Darnielle’s previous forays into fiction, but I’m also really curious to see what he does next, and how some of the more experimental devices in this are used in later works.

There’s one phrase close to the end of the novel that has stuck with me:

“Iowa seemed less bloodthirsty about its past than California…”

That sense of state as somehow ravenous, predatory about their own histories. I’m curious: were there any sentences that have stayed with you since you finished reading the novel?

IM: Right, precisely. There’s something that makes me hearken back to the novel now, in this small town, that is more powerful than the unease I felt reading it New York.

I completely see why you’re curious to see what he does next, but I will say this — that in the end, this novel felt incomplete to me in a way that has made me angrier the more I think about it. Because while I do try to appreciate art for art’s sake and separate the artist from the work, I can’t help but wonder how many women have ever been allowed to experiment like this, in a way that feels almost lazy to me, on their way to doing better or bigger work. Darnielle has cachet because, at least in part, he is the singer for The Mountain Goats and he is that most desirable and least controversial of author faces still: a straight white cis man (as far as I know). The women in his novel are symbols more than characters — Stephanie is the crush, Lisa is the damaged girl, the mothers are dead or absent, etc. The men grieve and feel, but ultimately stay strong and move on. Maybe I’m letting politics color my view, but there’s something that makes me deeply impatient with this kind of story when it focuses the way this one does. I’m curious whether you feel this way at all, or whether you think my reaction may be political in an ultimately unhelpful way.

“The women in his novel are symbols more than characters.”

I confess, sentences from this book didn’t stick out to me, either. The book was well-written, yes, but at no point did it emotionally stun me or linguistically floor me. I don’t think the book is bad, not at all — I don’t mean to convey that. It’s lovely in many ways. But in ways I can’t entirely put my finger on, I found myself impatient with it more than once.

TC: I don’t know if impatience is how I’d describe my feelings about it, but there were definitely moments where I wanted more focus, more closure on some of the plotlines. In terms of expansive, intricately-structured novels that encompass vast stretches of time, I think Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas all had that a similar sort of narrative flash while also providing clearer arcs for the characters. Though I don’t necessarily think that what Darnielle’s doing here exactly lines up with any of these, there is that same sense of ambition.

I don’t think that the novel’s handling of gender frustrated me as much as other aspects of it did. You’d talked about the way the story focused, and I think that focus (or a lack thereof) is more where my criticism with it can be found. There are aspects of it, in retrospect, that remind of of some of the storytelling techniques that Ali Smith uses, but I think she uses narrative ambiguity a lot more deftly. I don’t think I’d say that this novel feels that much like one of Smith’s novels, but it does seem to be venturing into the same territory as Hotel World or The Accidental.

(And, of course, I keep talking about this novel in terms of what it’s not, in the ways that it doesn’t resemble certain other things. So maybe that’s of a piece of its ambiguity as well.)

IM: My sense is that while you liked the novel, it’s the kind of book that upon closer inspection doesn’t hold up for you. Is that right? In my case, I think it’s the kind of book that I love talking about, but don’t necessarily enjoy reading as much as I’d like, and so that’s probably not a sterling review for it… Though maybe my discomfort while reading (my impatience in my case) was part of the point, part of the drawn out nature of this small town intrigue, in which case, well done!

TC: Closing thoughts? I have a few–some of which relate to my bewilderment at seeing Universal Harvester referred to as a “horror novel” in at least one headline. In the end, I still feel frustrated by aspects of the novel and impressed with others, and curious about what Darnielle’s next book will be like. But I’m going to close on an optimistic note, and point out that one thing that Darnielle does very well here is to convey the experience of experiencing another form of media. In terms of the evocation of VHS culture of a decade and change ago, he seems pretty spot-on, and I appreciated that. Maybe fifteen years from now, we’ll get the creepy novel about streaming video services that we didn’t know we were waiting for, too.

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