From the Library Stacks: Universal Harvester

Just finished reading John Darnielle’s novel, Universal Harvester.

A friend of mine from my church gave me this as a birthday gift a couple or so months ago, as he is a big fan of the band, the Mountain Goats, which is headed by John Darnielle, the author of this novel. I believe Darnielle has written three novels so far.

I very much appreciated the conceit, that some clips of seemingly dark content, are being spliced into video store rental VHS tapes at a small town, Iowa, called Video Hut. This realization by the characters starts a series of sub-stories featuring a number of inter-locking character scenarios over several places in rural Iowa someplace near Ames.

While that conceit of spliced video tapes makes me think of David Lynch’s film, Lost Highway (1997), this novel goes to no such place as dark as that film.

Instead, this film features some very real-life situations of good and bad relationships between fathers and sons, widowed men meeting new women, women trying to tell their stories and connect, as well as a number of other types. These scenarios are structured in a way that reflect a time-space continuum if past, present, and future, coming together through various literary splices.

The physically of the setting descriptions evokes Darnielle’s song-writing strengths in his band, as does the seemingly detached and irrelevant title. Iowa very much feels like a real place, though the conceit is strangely fantastic at first – even though the reader does eventually get some satisfaction on just what the situation with the video tapes is.

The title of the novel suggests destruction, but also one that makes things ready to be used by humans – that change works across a number of fronts and that work is required at every level. Universal Harvester is a meditation on change of all sorts, both as acknowledging the past and the multitude of emotions people have as they realize they must also move to the future – in this place, a future in an Iowa’s country, American landscape.

Iowa’s rural nature comes right out to the surface in the text.

I am so impressed with the title, the structure, and the techniques deployed, that I definitely will want to reread this novel in a couple years and soak in even more of the specificity relayed. I personally think the right publisher picked it up, and it makes sense to me why it got some of the blurbs it received. In particular, the one quoted from Nobel Prize winning author, Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote, Remains of the Day. I feel like Ishiguro also dives deep into narrative facts and yet, floats above them so the writing gets proper framing and philosophical order.

Thank you ‘K’ for this gift.