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John Darnielle: Universal Harvester

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John Darnielle, as you may know, is the principal in The Mountain Goats. In effect, he is the mountain goat, as the band seems to be (or at least to have been for some time), essentially a one-man project consisting of Darnielle and various accompanists. He's a brilliant (and astonishingly prolific) songwriter, and the great strength of his songwriting is in the lyrics. This is his second novel; I have not read the first, Wolf In White Van.

When a friend passed this book along to me after having read it himself and, if I understood him, not expecting to read it again, I wasn't sure that I would ever read it. Why not? Well, contemporary fiction is not my great interest, and I had low expectations, including the impression (of unknown origin) that it would be a whimsical, ironic, and gently humorous look at small and mundane things, somewhat along the lines of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone stories. I enjoyed those at the time, but the time was decades ago now, and I have not wanted to revisit them, and have no particular desire to read anything else of the sort. And--the strongest reason, I guess--the ability to write a good song is not necessarily accompanied by the ability to put words on a page effectively.

And I might well not have read Universal Harvester if the recent release of a new Mountain Goats album, Dark In Here, which I haven't heard, had not been the occasion of a conversation which resulted in my lending the book to someone else, and his reaction causing me to have a look at it myself.

I was not altogether mistaken in expecting something Keillor-esque. The story takes place in small towns in Iowa (their placement is significant, and a map is helpful). And the characters are small people, mostly young, limited in the scope of their knowledge and ambition. Set in the late '90s, it begins in a video rental store (the Video Hut) with a young man named Jeremy who is one of the two clerks who are the only staff apart from the owner. Jeremy is twenty-two years old and still suffering from the loss of his mother in an auto accident when he was sixteen. He lives with his still-grieving father; they get by, not knowing quite what to do with themselves. Jeremy is getting a little old to be working in a video store.

Much of the novel might be said with reasonable accuracy to be in Keillor mode. The people are portrayed with charm and a little irony, the ways of the place observed keenly, with a bit of humor and a distinct melancholy but no unkindness. But then it switches into another mode, a much darker one. Into the Video Hut one morning comes a girl named Stephanie, returning a tape, and hesitatingly, vaguely, telling Jeremy that something is wrong with it.

She didn't set her tape down; instead, she held it in her hand, chest-high, a little away from her body.

"There's something on this one" she said.

Jeremy thinks she's complaining about the movie (Targets, a 1968 movie in which Boris Karloff appeared, shortly before his death).

Stephanie looked a little blankly at Jeremy, measuring him, then said, "No, it's a great movie. I've seen it before.".... "It's the tape, there's something on it."

"I can credit your account," said Jeremy.

Stephanie put on her measuring face again and seemed to decide Jeremy wasn't going to understand. "No, it's fine," she said. "Never mind. Maybe tell Sarah Jane about it, though, OK?"

(Sarah Jane is the store's owner.) Jeremy puts the tape aside and forgets about it. A few days later another customer brings in another tape, with a similar complaint. Some days go by before anyone looks into the problem, but eventually Jeremy, Stephanie, and Sarah Jane have watched two of the tapes, separately or together, and what they find disturbs them. Spliced into the movies are bits of home video shot in what seems to be a barn or shed. In one case it's several minutes of nothing, just the empty place. Others involve mild violence, or near-violence: a hooded and silent figure doing odd, slightly demeaning things; a person or persons hidden under a tarp, seeming to struggle, and receiving several kicks.

More similarly modified tapes are discovered. Most of the interpolations aren't actually violent, but they're menacing, not only in their content but in their apparently random appearances in apparently random movies. Jeremy, Stephanie, and Sarah Jane begin to search for their source. Mixed with the deftly rendered personal stories and situations of these characters now is an element of dread: these scenes are real, and they do not seem to be staged, and they seem filled with dread, though nothing very dreadful actually happens in them.

So perhaps this is going to be a horror story, or a thriller. Then the tricksy stuff begins: the narrator intrudes on a scene to say that there is another version of it, in which this happens instead of that. Repeatedly the story walks up to what promises to be a revelation, then veers away to something else. There's a great deal--too much for my taste--of shifting around in time: something is about to happen, the scene shifts, and sometime later we learn something about the thing that was about to happen. All very cinematic--consciously so, I would guess, since movies are central to the story.

Eighty-four pages in, Part Two begins, and we are in the story of a woman who, a few days after Christmas in 1972, abandons her husband and young daughter to join a Christian cult. You'll note that there are now two instances of a lost mother.

The stories do come together, and I guess most of this back-and-forth, up-and-back movement lies in the general area of modern fictional technique. (Or is it post-modern?--I'm not competent to say.) But it becomes frustrating, in spite of the charm of the details, because (in addition to there being too much of it) too many questions remain unanswered. Or at least seem to. When I closed the book I felt annoyed that I still didn't know exactly what had happened. And then I wondered whether anything at all had happened: had I just experienced a far more sophisticated execution of the "it was all just a dream" trick that has always seemed to me a cheap one? I am not a fan of The Wizard of Oz.

Having pondered it a bit more, I think I do know what happened, though I'm not certain, and even if I'm right about the big picture there are still a good many puzzling details that I'm not pleased not to see cleared up. Moreover, I think one could construct an argument that is at least plausible that almost none of the narrative actually occurred. Ambiguity and subtlety are good things, but I think Universal Harvester may go a bit too far in those directions.

Still, I give it a qualified recommendation. There is much to enjoy, and a fair amount that is strongly moving. And perhaps you will catch on more quickly than I did; I was long ago forced to recognize that I can be somewhat thick. I'll give you one bit of advice: pay very close attention when the narrator says "I", or otherwise refers to him/her self.

In any case, there's no doubt that John Darnielle's gifts as a writer extend to fiction.

Comments

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I think I may have been the one that gave it to you, Mac. Your reaction seems to mirror what my reaction was when I read it several years ago, thought it is hard to tell with that time having gone by. Those descriptions of what were on the VHS tapes seem like something that David Lynch would film. I wonder if I thought of that then, while reading, also? I do distinctly remember thinking that it was good writing but that the enigmatic nature of the story sort of annoyed me.

Yes, you definitely were the one who gave it to me. I really don't remember anything specific you said about it but I did have the impression that you weren't enthusiastic about it. Which is pretty much supported by the fact that you were giving it away. :-) There was definitely a Lynchian element, or maybe I should say it had the potential for that.

Don't know if this is a book I'd ever read or not, but it does call to mind a discussion I had with a couple friends a few years back about "earned" and "unearned ambiguity." We were talking about movies, and one of the guys said that he felt annoyed by the ending of a certain movie because, although he didn't mind ambiguity in film, this particular movie didn't earn it. I thought that was an interesting idea, and we went back and forth about it discussing various movies.

Of course, there is a subjective element to the whole question: not everyone "gets" a movie or a book the same way of course, and some people are less keen to give ambiguity a pass than others. But I do think there's something to the idea that some books/movies work harder to "earn" the right to be ambiguous than others.

Hmm. Interesting distinction. Offhand I don't know how it would be made, except as you say quite subjectively. Rashomon would surely qualify. I'd say a lot of Bergman's stuff would, too. It occurred to me sometime after I had posted this that this book might be compared to "Turn of the Screw" with respect to ambiguity.

I suspect, though, that UH is not truly ambiguous in that way. I suspect that the clues to what really happened are there, just not obvious enough to be noticed by the less careful (or less bright) reader. Even if that's true, though, there would remain a certain annoyance on my part about certain things that are very important to the story and seem to have really happened but are mentioned only glancingly. As if a crucial event in a novel was the destruction of a house by a flood, and the only time it's mentioned is a sentence or two when a character recalls water starting to seep in under his front door.

The movie that caused my friends' and my discussion was Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter. The question the film raises, that of whether the lead character is actually some sort of prophet or is simply crazy, is what was at issue. Two of us felt that it was answered in a dramatically satisfying manner, while the other found it unsatisfactory -- he's the one who described its ambiguity as "unearned."

This eventually led me to the idea that at the end of a book or movie of this sort one can say "What the hell?" in two different ways: appreciatively or dismissively. The former prompts further thought and consideration, the latter, criticism or derision. I agree that there's a subjective element to this, but on the other hand, I think we've all read books or seen movies where at the end of which we feel cheated or gypped. There is something in us that desires some sort of "fair" resolution (which of course does not mean that every single loose end must be neatly tied up and dealt with).

"there would remain a certain annoyance on my part about certain things that are very important to the story and seem to have really happened but are mentioned only glancingly."

I think this is fair play in a mystery novel, since one expects the author to drop hints of that sort -- it's part of the "game." But in straight fiction that would seem to be less acceptable, as the reader is not generally in the habit of needing to pay attention for clues while reading.

That's true. The comparison to mysteries suggests a better analogy to the specific thing I was thinking of. Imagine a mystery in which it's not 100% clear that a death has even occurred. The detective goes around interviewing people and so forth. And at the end of the book you get something like "Several years later, Dalgliesh was having coffee at an outdoor cafe and saw a woman wearing a dress that was the same shade of green as the tie Smith had worn when he was arrested for the murder of Jones." I'm exaggerating, but not all that much.

I don't know if I would say Universal Harvester's ambiguity is unearned, but I don't think it really serves the story very well.

"I don't know if I would say Universal Harvester's ambiguity is unearned, but I don't think it really serves the story very well."

Makes sense.

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