27. Wild Card: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
List Progress: 11/30
First off, my biases. I love the band The Mountain Goats so much that I have some of their lyrics as tattoos. So I might be more forgiving towards Universal Harvester, the second novel by Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle, than I would be to other novels of its kind. But as illusive and actively defiant to explanation as this novel is, there is something very hypnotic and beautiful about it, that I hope I would pick up no matter who had written it.
Set in smalltown late-nineties Iowa (an area and time period I have a strong personal connection to, so more biases), Universal Harvester concerns a video rental place where strange things start happening to the tapes. Small snippets of black and white film depicting strange scenes and incomprehensible acts have been spliced into random parts of random movies throughout the store. Is someone trying to scare people? To get out a message? To reach someone? Store clerk Jeremy gets pulled into finding out what the tapes mean, while his manager Sarah Jane may have a trail on where they were filmed. But even if that description makes it sound like Universal Harvester is about a mystery to be solved, the novel rejects the idea that it needs to have clear answers. There are some things that are answered, but not comprehensively and I can see how that could be annoying to some.
But this feels more like a story about atmosphere, human emotion and haunting images, wrapped up in one of the most specific and nuanced depictions I’ve seen of small town Midwestern life. Darnielle has so obviously lived in Iowa; it’s not just the name-dropping of regional brands and towns I’ve been to, it’s the way the people talk and think. The story jumps around in space and time, but every storyline feels real and lived in. There’s an atmosphere of haunting melancholy throughout and it is incredibly absorbing. This book is relatively short, and that’s the right move, as making it much longer would require more answers to feel complete, but it works as a short, lush experience.
John Darnielle is a wonderful musician and songwriter, and that passion for wordsmithing and tone comes across in his novels as well. The plotting is intentionally loose, and that might not be every reader’s cup of tea, but it really touched me. And I will definitely follow more of his novels and music in the future.
Would I Recommend It: Yes!