Iowa in the late 1990s and a video store clerk – Jeremy – is made aware by the local schoolteacher – Stephanie – that her copy of Targets – a Corman / Bogdonavich film starring Boris Karloff which I’ve never seen but heard a shitload about via Gilbert Gottfried’s podcast – has been tampered with. Jeremy intends to check it out, but like all twenty somethings working in a video store in the late 1990s he forgets and is only reminded a week or so later when a second customer tells him that her copy of She’s All That – remember when Freddie Prinze Jr. was a thing? – also has “another movie” on the tape. Jeremy takes a closer look and discovers that, yes, a scene has been spliced into the film – shot in black and white and featuring an almost empty barn and the sound of someone breathing. Checking out Targets he finds something similarly disturbing. What’s more alarming is that Sarah Jane – owner of the video store – recognises the barn as one just outside of town…
What I loved about Universal Harvester is how Darnielle takes what could have been a corny psychological thriller and transforms it into a meditation on loss and memory and absent mothers. I fully expected that the task of tracking down who has edited his or her weird films into copies of mainstream movies would end with Jeremy strapped to a table in the very same barn about to be tortured and filmed and re-edited into a copy of Joe’s Apartment. But this is John Darnielle and while I haven’t read Wolf in White Van, I’ve heard only good things (the book was longlisted for the National Book Award). I shouldn’t have been surprised then when those strange black and white films change from something creepy and odd into a haunting symbol of loss.
In particular the loss of a mother. It’s a key link between two of the characters and the profound effect this loss, this absence, has on their psyche. Darnielle does land on the view that mothers provide a certain something that can’t be replicated by fathers. This could be seen as gender essentialism or it could be seen as a fact of parenthood – that mothers and fathers play different roles. That aspect may annoy some, but I found it heartfelt and honest.
The book’s structure is also interesting and unexpected but in a slightly more hit and miss way. The story is mostly told in third person, but every so often it abruptly switches to first person, the identity of whom is left unclear until the end. This creates a level of ambiguity. Can we trust what we’re being told? Our narrator in third person also has this knack of cutting away just as things are reaching a dramatic peak. A car accident and the fate of one of our heroes is left hanging as the narrative abruptly transitions to an extended flashback to a character’s childhood. While the flashback is critical to the theme and plot of the novel it’s also a momentum killer. And yet, in the last third these cut-aways – just like the black and white films they represent – work brilliantly to add a level of the unfathomable to a book that refuses to provide clear-cut answers as to why people do the things they do.
While there’s nothing straightforward about this novel – Darnielle never answers the pressing question why the book is called Universal Harvester. Yes… I know… Iowa = corn = combine harvesters… but why are they Universal?* – I never felt frustrated or unsatisfied. It’s because Darnielle clearly articulates his themes providing the reader with plenty to chew on. This is a haunting, quiet, character-piece that explores loss and absence and memory in a way that’s inventive and subtle and opaque.
*It’s been pointed out to me by Jon Blum that Universal Harvester is a brand name of combine harvesters from back in the day. So that solves that mystery.**
** It’s also been pointed out to me that Universal Harvester could be a metaphor for death and loss. Which seems obvious now…