Prague Metro Time Table

Drunk expat walks off
the metro platform.
At last relaxed, he falls
awakened only by the loss
of ground to sleep walk on.

Dazed, strangers are yelling,
gesturing wildly,
pulling him up to safety
and more gestures
pointing to the escalator exit up.

While ascending to Charles Square
towards daylight,
the Saturday morning metro arrives.
I wander towards Angel district
and its three story mall,
the free bathroom on the second floor,
to wash the rail grease from my face,
and look dismally at the rips
in my Offspring t-shirt.

That day I realized
When I die, it will be some way
similar, just as stupid
and preventable
(a public inconvenience maybe).
Last time I was early, but next time
I will not be late.

The newspaper would read,
“John White, an American in Prague, died last night
in Peace Square underground metro station.
He was catching the metro home.
It hit him in the face.”

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I’ll take Universal Harvester over Mein Kampf any day

“I’ll take Universal Harvester over Mein Kampf any day.”

Review of John Darnielle’s book Universal Harvester. Published Feb 7, 2017.

Reviewed by John White

 

NOTICE: This reviews contains spoilers. If you haven’t read or listened to it by now, tick tock. Seriously, I really liked the book and I hope you will too.

 

Darnielle’s Universal Harvester and Hitler’s Mein Kampf are both narrated by someone deeply traumatized who struggles with staggering personal loss. Their struggle to overcome unspeakable hurt becomes a defining trait of their identity. The former is about loss of a parent and a sense of home and the latter is about the loss of one’s parents, the perceived loss of one’s country and homeland, and pointing the blame. In Harverster, there’s no one to blame for the sadness, only coping with the void. Both narrators struggle to make sense of their pain by hurting others and call it help. For the former, harassing hooded strangers in a shed, for the latter, genocide and lebensraum (German “living space”) flavored with German Idealism. In both cases, if they don’t hurt their victims physically, they hurt them psychologically. Ordinary events fill the victims with dread and they hope that if left alone, the insanity will resolve itself and life with go on as before. For the novel, the protagonist (Jeremy) seek to justify and enable the antagonist’s (Lisa) desperate attempt at emotional catharsis. For the National Socialist regime, different social strata identified with various parts of Hitler’s two volume rant on why multi-culturalism is bad, Germans lost World War One, and how the Germans could regain their national self-respect. Well-intentioned but emotionally scarred and proud people inadvertently permitted the annihilation of tens of millions of people because they wanted to help their country and themselves. That’s where the similarities end and let’s never speak of it again. Comparing anything with Hitler’s warped and hateful ‘World-Concept’ (his term was Weltanschauung) is like bringing a gun to a knife fight.  Don’t reference it unless you understand the concept and don’t mind shooting yourself in the foot.

Darnielle speaks the way Edward Hopper paints. The scenes are of everyday middle America with a sense of vague unease lurking beyond the picture’s frame. The setting of Harvester is wholly in small towns and farmland between Eastern Nebraska and Iowa. Hopper uses washed out colors and empty scenes to convey the unspoken. When there are people in the scenes, they’re always alone, even when with others. They are merely props on the canvas for the real depth is in the places themselves. To the viewer, this conveys a sad alienation. Unlike Hopper, Darnielle lets the people take center stage without diminishing the locale’s role in the story. The settings exist and they enable the characters to breath with their mystery intact. Darnielle’s use of irreducible spaces gives life to the country most Americans will never see. However, what is witnessed and remembered is dutifully preserved through family histories told over holiday dinner tables, with the cameras of those passing through, and with writing like the novel Universal Harvester.

This book is beautifully written and hauntingly read by Darnielle from the beginning to the heartfelt and unsettling end. The plot’s main conflict is that disturbing home movies are being spliced into commercial movies available a small video rental store in rural Iowa. The retail clerk (Jeremy), the store owner, and a customer all seek in different ways to uncover the truth of the footage. The plot’s overarching themes are of grief over the loss of a parent.  For one character, their mother died in a car crash when they were a teenager. For another, their mother disappeared when they were a child.  How their fathers struggled to maintain a sense of normalcy and how the children internalized their father’s behavior makes all the difference.  Near the end of the book, Lisa makes a speech rationalizing her actions. It’s a heartfelt speech and the reader or listener is genuinely moved. I was. Its only after some thought that we stop and think, ‘wait, did she just gloss over the most puzzling and criminal part of her behavior?  Did we just condone what she did because we felt sorry for her? Did we the reader just get fooled along with the characters?’ Yes. Yes. And Yes.  Due to Darnielle’s masterful and poetic storytelling, the reader’s personal feelings become part of the plot.  The characters are disturbed by the video edits and we are disturbed by our sense of being duped (The rise of National Socialism also couldn’t have happened without audience participation.).

After I finished listening to this book, I felt Jeremy, Jeremy’s dad, and Lisa are really out there even now, living in Navada, Collins, or Tama, Iowa. I felt that if I went to thrift stores there today, I’d find those altered VHS tapes. This sense of realness is due in part to the sparse writing style of the author and in part to the universal themes he investigates. The author is a song writer and knows that a few well-chosen words can describe a scene better than long descriptive paragraphs. The main characters are given a life of their own and secrets left intact. The reader or listener cares because the characters cared about one another. Small towns have a way of protecting their own and not prying too much into one’s personal life. If someone needs a friend, several are readily available to help even if it puts their own well-being in danger. This book reflects that.

The book isn’t without its faults. Some of the characters seem like mere plot devices or obvious red herrings and I keep expecting them to show larger purpose, but they don’t. Sometimes the author relies on the reader’s acceptance of the character’s judgments or a scene is left too vague. If a particular character sums up some extremely disturbing event as “she’s hurt”, that’s all the reader gets and we the objective public remain unsatisfied. The momentum of the early chapters halts suddenly and shifts to a background story of characters we at the time feel are unnecessary. The backstory takes 1 hour out of the 6 total hours of the audio book.  The side story is quaint, touching, and poignant on its own, but I kept thinking, ‘And about those videos…’.  Eventually the side story merged with the initial story and I realized the video splicing from the book’s publisher is just a hook. The real story is much more original and unsettling.  I’d also slight the book a bit because of some unnecessary poetic flourishes describing objects or moods.  These are minimal though, and I liked them for themselves. My criticism is the momentum of the plot lags sometimes so I hope the reader enjoys the fragmentary reflections. I did.

What makes a good book great is how it lingers in the mind after one has finished reading it.  It’s the impression it makes.  If the drama is all resolved and there are no more questions and nothing left to tell, then why should I remember the book?  If I liked some of the characters or a few turns of phrase, maybe I’ll remember those lines for a little while.  But a great book has more questions than answers whether in trying to ‘decipher’ the plot’s nuance or comparing those nuances within the book to films referenced. Inside the relatively short text (6 hours for an audiobook is half the typical audiobook length. Hitler’s tedious diatribe is a numbing 27 hours.) are different parallels between the protagonist and antagonist, between the ‘crimes’ of the antagonist and the movies the home footage is spliced in.  One of the first movies is “Targets”, which briefly is about an emotionally damaged Vietnam vet who comes home from the war, kills his family, and goes on a shooting spree at a movie theater. When he’s caught, he wonders if he’ll make the evening news.  It’s a very stylized and public display of an inconceivable inner wound. How does that compare to the motives and methods of the Harvester’s chief villain?  In Lisa’s final monolog, she admits offhand that the films weren’t always chosen randomly.  Sometimes she picked certain films and deliberately spliced in certain home footage. Another parallel is how the itinerate nature of her childhood contrasts to her home films. How her, at times, criminal insanity serves to achieve mastery over her trauma.  How she views her work as bearing witness to the anonymous lives of the Midwest, to her mother’s absence, to her own life. Without her home movies, her video splicing, and desperate re-watching of old surveillance footage in search for her lost mother, her life would also be anonymous and lost.  Her single minded focus is her only claim to Midwestern life origins.  If we deny her the expression or ‘witness’ of her grieve, does she cease to exist?

Years after the main action takes place, a family of newly arrived residents find the video tape of Jeremy and track him down for some explanation of what they’ve seen. He replies that he doesn’t want them to write him anymore, but gives them the address of the person behind the camera.  He says, “I know you have many questions, but you should leave her alone. I know you won’t, but you should.” Throughout the novel, Darnielle presents an unsettling detective story mixed with a presentation of personal grief.  He shows how a family copes with the loss of the mother, how they grieve, and how they try to redeem the mother’s memory. He respects his subjects enough to give them room for their emotions despite the consequences.  The ending places the reader into the story, acknowledges that we want the big reveal, but we don’t get it. Jeremy believes the search for answers should be dropped. John Darnielle does too.

 

 

When Vivienne Arrived Early

The first time I cried for you was five minutes after you were born.  Your mum had come into the clinic that afternoon for a routine check-up two weeks before you were due. Her doctor was concerned she had preeclampsia so she sent her to the labor and delivery wing for tests. A few hours later, they decided to perform an emergency C-section.  They gave your mum medication and put her on a table with a big blue sheet with a plastic window between the surgery and her.  She was dreamy and she looked beautiful. There were all sorts of commotion in the room, and at 11pm on the dot your wailing added to the mix.  They thrust you up to the window for a few seconds and you were a gooey hysterical mess. Immediately afterwards, you and I went to a table where they took your vitals to medically confirm what everyone already knew, that you were alive. They gave me scissors to cut your umbilical cord and then they wiped the womb’s residue from your body and gave you a tiny knit hat. As they prepared for your first official photo, I stood back and looked at your distraught screaming frown, your open reaching arms, and bowl shaped legs sticking wide up in the air. You were pitiful, helpless, and vulnerable, and I knew I was responsible to keep you safe. Your and my feelings surfaced together, and I choked with empathy.

The next afternoon I drove back home to check on our cat Lola and grab our bag of hospital essentials for you, your mum, and me. While I was out, I was also supposed to pick up chicken soup for your mum.  On the return drive, the radio played the theme from the film Mr. Holland’s Opus.  They introduced the theme by explaining how the character Mr. Holland had always wanted to become a great composer but instead spent his life as a high school music teacher.  On the evening he retired, his family and former students threw him a surprise party in the school’s auditorium. The guest speaker referenced John Lennon’s quote on when his child was born, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” Then, to Mr. Holland’s immense surprise, they began playing his opus he’d privately been working on throughout his career.

When I was in seventh grade orchestra class, we played a simplified version of that song. At the time, I was unimpressed.  It was slow to start, slow throughout, and climaxed with a mild symphonic flair before it ended.  This time, it was different.  The sound was slow, but it was subtle, serene, and brimming with anticipation. During the ever so slow build up, I thought about that Lennon quote and thought self pityingly about my unsuccessful and desperate attempts to continue my academic studies. Instead I’m barely getting by with a low income but financially stable warehouse job. I thought about what I really want to do with myself and with my writing. Then I thought about the previous night and how your mum successfully gave birth to you, Vivienne Ruth White. After, we had returned to the hospital room with bedside couch. While your mum rested in exhaustion, I lay down under a blanket and held you against my chest for an hour and half. You and I both dosing but waking up to look at each other again. Your mum and I took care of each other and would do anything to take care of you. I thought all this while I drove and the song’s subtle build up played on. Then, when the listener stops expecting any change at all, the entire symphony comes together in a triumphant release that seems to surprise even the composer himself. My chest started heaving in waves with the music and I let myself go. The opus and I were one. For the second time in twenty-four hours, I cried.