Book Review: 'Universal Harvester,' By John DarnielleMusician and author John Darnielle's new Universal Harvester follows three connected stories in three different eras, in an unsettling fairy tale about mysterious images that appear on video tapes.
You may have noticed that mothers don't do so well in literature – stories both classic and contemporary tend to bump them off. Critics and scholars tie themselves in knots trying to identify the cultural significance of the missing-mother trope, which is pervasive and shows no signs of letting up. In a way, stories are our most prolific and dangerous serial killers, leaving behind plucky orphans, kind but overbearing widowers, the occasional wicked stepmother, and two questions: Where on earth did the mothers go? And why?
This question does not lie precisely at the heart of Universal Harvester — the second novel from singer-songwriter John Darnielle — but certainly informs it at every turn. The plot moves fluidly between three time periods: the 1990s, when an aimless, small-town video store employee named Jeremy discovers unsettling clips spliced onto random films rented out by his store; the 1970s, when a young wife and mother, Irene, falls in with a cult following a garbage-eating drifter; and the present day, when a retired couple and their college-aged children find a cache of disturbing videos in the basement of their newly-purchased farmhouse. A mysterious I alsooccasionally drifts into an otherwise third-person story, dropping philosophical clues and letting the reader know that someone else is most definitely in charge.
Jeremy's fixation on the tapes — aided by a tenacious patron and his own boss' descent into obsession — is moderated by the sweet, slow waltz between him and his widower father, who gently tries to get Jeremy to do something more with his life. Irene — furthest in the past and untroubled by the mystery she's unknowingly participating in — searches for peace and satisfaction. The modern-day family attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery that's driving the whole plot, but even these realizations come to us only in bits and pieces.
Unsurprisingly, Darnielle's prose is lucid and precise, the sort of clear-eyed, knife-jab sentences that defined both his debut Wolf in White Van and his whole songwriting career. He moves through the plot with an enviable looseness. His mysterious narrator — who occasionally bobs to the surface to give us details, potential alternate narratives, and once, a new set of eyes on an established set of characters — gives the whole affair a metafictional flavor, reminding us that stories are ultimately just that — stories.
And this one is, in its own way, a fairy tale — an old, un-Disney-fied one — filtered through the fragrant, dusty Iowan air; a ghost story that's all too real; a detective story with no simple solution. Horror tropes abound but quickly fall away. The dread the pulses through the early pages is replaced with a different kind of anguish: the dimensions of human loneliness and grief. The novel strikes at the heart of the realities of small-town existence — not just their downsides, which would have been a cheap and easy shot, but their pleasures and comforts and truths.
In White Van, Darnielle wound around a single act of violence like water orbiting a drain. But here, the violence is larger, more existential, more terrifying. It is not a single a moment that changes everything, but instead a culmination of choices, tempered by the ordinary details of daily life.
And is there anything larger and more terrifying than Iowa's cornfields? "There are other times when people go into the fields and yell different things," Darnielle writes. "'Help!' for example, often repeatedly with increasingly volume, or 'Where are you taking me?' But nobody usually hears them. A few rows of corn will muffle the human voice so effectively that, even a few insignificant rows away, all is silence, what to speak of out at the highway's shoulder: all the way back there, already fading into memory now."
So where are they, the mothers? What are they up to? Maybe they're like the rest of us: out in the cornfields, separated by a few rows that might as well be a few miles, walking parallel to each other and yelling something no one else can hear.
Carmen Maria Machado's debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, will be released in 2017. She has written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta and elsewhere.