Steal home before sunset, cover up my tracks
Drive home with old dreams at play in my mind and the wind at my back
Break the lock on my own garden gate when I get home after dark
Sit looking up at the stars outside like teeth in the mouth of a shark
I used to live here
I used to live here
-Genesis 3:23 by The Mountain Goats
Nostalgia as a concept is inherently fragile as it’s an abstract desire and longing for a time already passed. Perhaps the most nostalgic era in recent history is the 1990s; this was, of course, the last decade before ‘The Internet Age’ completely established itself. Information wasn’t yet accessible through smart phones and you could easily get lost relying solely on a physical map rather than a voice through your phone telling you exactly when to turn. This turn of the century—when video stores to rent VHS tapes weren’t of a bygone era—is the backdrop of John Darnielle’s second novel, Universal Harvester.
Darnielle, the lead singer of folk-band The Mountain Goats, emerged onto the literary scene in 2014 with his debut novel, The Wolf in White Van, which was featured on several “best-of” lists and even grabbed a nomination for The National Book Award. In his newest book, Darnielle deconstructs the fragility inherent in nostalgia and does so by unpacking the subjects that are used to build its foundation like time, memory, and place. As referenced in the lyric from The Mountain Goats above, this is not the first time Darnielle has been concerned with nostalgia and its flaws. In the song, the narrator drives to a place that should be his home, but what he finds is only what used to be his home. In Universal Harvester, home isn’t always what we want and eventually might not even be ours at all.
The novel’s introduction is something that one might expect from a Stephen King novel. Jeremy, a boy working at a video rental store in Iowa, has little direction in his life. His dad wants him to consider starting a career and his mom passed away when he was young. Jeremy and his dad pass the time by ritually watching old VHS tapes; this ritual is quickly disrupted when Jeremy brings home tapes that customers were reporting for having “something off “with them. As Jeremy finds out, several VHS tapes in the rental store have been taped over with nothing but a creepy barn and hushed voices. Jeremy becomes concerned with this mystery and recruits Sarah Jane, his boss and store manager, to help him get to the bottom of it.
While this sets the novel up as a classic horror novel, Darnielle makes quick work to subvert reader expectations. In postmodern fashion, the plot is far from stable: instability is a major theme in the novel, and likely why Darnielle decides to play around with not only the plot, but the narration as well. Harvester’s deviation from the chilling beginning may disappoint some: Darnielle certainly showcases a capacity at writing horror as the first few chapters of Jeremy and Sarah Jane watching the tapes are genuinely unsettling. For those who enjoy unnerving, cerebral writing, the last half of the novel will be disappointing as the brand of horror defined by the genre is bare. Replacing it is a horror that may be more harrowing because of its place in reality. It is a horror of ritualized, Midwestern life threatened by the absence of family members and how individuals might process that loss differently. For the people in this small town, horror is not a monster or a ghost, but the unstable structures of home, place, and family.
Although set in a very specific Midwest town in Iowa, the specifics and happenings of the town could be anywhere. This idea is described in a conversation between Jeremy and Sarah Jane early in the novel:
“That’s somewhere near here,” she said. “It looks just like a lot of places near here.”
“It looks like a lot of places anywhere,” Jeremy said. (28)
The duality in this conversation showcases the word play that Darnielle is so interested in. The conversation could be taken as a comfort that there are others out there who know what you experience in your specific place and time, or it could simply mean that home is not unique or special because there are so many other places that look just like it. Even language isn’t stable in the world of Universal Harvester.
In contrast with the fragility of home and memory, Harvester also explores the permanence and consequences of choice. The narrator of the novel tangentially refers to different “variations” of how moments could have unfolded in the lives of these characters. This is not unlike the rhetorical questions we always ask ourselves when we imagine how different our lives would unfold if we would have chosen another path in specific situation whether that’s a regret in job choice or wondering what it would be like to live somewhere else. In this novel, it’s a young girl not learning something from her mother:
She unplugs electrical appliances that aren’t in use, and waits until evening to bathe, having learned from her mother, that over time these small choices add up to real savings, which can be kept on hand in case the day should come when a reserve is needed, when new supplies are scant. In this version of the story she learns all the same lessons, but not from her mother. (120)
This “variation” concept of narration is more subtle at the beginning, but as the novel continues it becomes much more prevalent and it becomes difficult to decipher what exactly is the version that is reality. This is no doubt a commentary from Darnielle about memory and choice; however, it seems contradictory to have an omniscient narrator that can’t decide what version of its story is true.
Because of Harvester’s unconventional plot, it’s hard to recommend it to people who enjoy plot driven novels. There aren’t any definitive protagonists here with clear goals and there are characters introduced in the final 50 pages. Regardless, it is a very quick read, both because of its length (right around 200 pages) and the fluidity of the writing. Darnielle’s writing and the philosophical issues he addresses more than make up for the decentralized plot and makes for a truly compelling read, but I can see where it might be an issue for others.
For those who are familiar with The Mountain Goats or have read Darnielle’s debut novel, there will be no surprise in the playful lyricism at work in Harvester—a playful lyricism that often masks dark themes and ideas hiding beneath. Perhaps in another “variation” of this novel, the horror of the first few chapters plays out and we get a straightforward horror novel about two video store clerks who are terrorized by VHS tapes in small-town Iowa; however, the version that Darnielle presents aims at philosophical ground much higher and is concerned with a more common type of horror—the everyday horror of loss that comes with the inevitable passing of time.