The cover of Universal Harvester is shiny.
The pictures in this article showing this sleek and purple book jacket won’t do justice to that fact. When you hold it under the light and tilt it around so the light strikes it at different angles, it gleams like those slightly holographic trading cards that were around when I was a kid. It’s a satisfying first impression, and unknown to me when I first beheld the cover, it contains hints at the story contained within despite showing only a still picture of a cornfield.
I start here at the cover because it’s an odd book. John Darnielle (of the Mountain Goats fame in case you were wondering why a book review is on a music site) builds the book around a central mystery that both disintegrates and grows more mysterious as the book marches toward its conclusion.
Somehow the more I read Universal Harvester, the less I felt I knew until the very end when all was revealed.
If the cover looks like what happens when you try to take a photograph of an image on an old CRT television, that’s extremely on purpose. The central mystery revolves around a videotape rental store in the 90s. Costumers start returning tapes complaining about weird images spliced into the videos. For the first third or so of the novel, it appears like Jeremy (a clerk at the video store) and Sarah Jane (owner of said store) will spend the rest of the book getting to the bottom of these very creepy happenings.
Most writers would follow the obvious path of such a set up down a rabbit hole culminating in dangerous situations and a reveal of who is altering these tapes and why.
Darnielle is not most writers.
In fact, through his first two novels, he seems extremely uninterested in plot. Much like Wolf in White Van before it, this is a character story first and foremost. It’s not interested in what happens. It’s only interested in why people are the way they are.
So very early in Universal Harvester, the mystery of who is altering these tapes disappears. We know exactly who, and the question of why this person is doing it controls the narrative for the last two-thirds of the plot. Anyone looking for a gripping horror story will probably be disappointed with this turn of events. The set up is so creepy and well done — akin to the best moments of The Ring or similar movies. This is in no way that.
In 2002, Darnielle released his two best albums: All Hail West Texas and Tallahassee, two location-themed albums that couldn’t be more different as far as the Mountain Goats albums are concerned. West Texas is immediate and, were it not for the acoustic guitar and vocals aesthetic, bordering on a punk album. On the other hand, Tallahassee is a slow burning character study of the disillusion and disbanding of a married couple. If the chaotic and startling Wolf in White Van is West Texas, Universal Harvester is definitely Tallahassee.
For fans of Darnielle’s work, this is a comparison that should say all it needs to say about his new novel.
Its a rumination on families and abandonment. It finds beauty in the small moments. It finds horror in the small moments. Everything that made Tallahassee a wonderful and heartbreaking album is in here. The worst moments of our lives are sometimes sudden, but they’re more often the result of countless little things that enact change over time. One cancer cell doesn’t kill a person — it takes a village of cancer cells to take someone down.
It’s a difficult book to write about because what it’s about isn’t what it’s about. That’s true for most books, but at least throwing the premise out there can be the hook that convinces potential readers to give it a shot. Here, the premise is mostly insignificant to the book as a whole and to the enjoyment of the book. Universal Harvester is about how families cope and survive. The plot is an afterthought in the face of that thought experiment — not because the plot is bad but because it’s unimportant.
There isn’t even anything to spoil here, but I feel myself holding back.
Contained within the pages between a very pretty front and back cover is something special to discover. Any readers interested in the why of what makes a person a person will find themselves enthralled with this text. The questions here are bigger than any variety of “who done it?” “What made you this way?” is the central question here and usually the central question around the people who invade our lives.
And in case you were wondering because I haven’t explicitly said yet, Universal Harvester is very good.