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.




Do It Yourself, Spring. You are Judged.

(continuing from the Summer 2013 analysis…)

“Book One, Part Two:  No, And Then, Yes.”  In the play Death… at the end, two of the three main voices are No and Yes. The other being Maybe.   Taking the separation as a choice of No and Yes, it makes the conflict an affirming or denying one.  So it attempts to suggest that by personally wanting change, one can enact it.  Although this idea seems consistent with the DIY spirit in which the book was written, but how does the DIY spirit reconcile with the perspective and memory dooming the individual prior to the individual themselves?


“The huge poplar trees in my garden are curtains on the city pavements…a vertical judgment.” (pg 12). Here, the gardens are an illusion of nature. Although it is a peaceful place, it’s still in the city.  Notice the distinction between vertical landscape and horizontal.
“Maya can suck cock, but she can’t stop time.  She clutches the seeds of futures in her throat. The soil is barren…” (pg 12)

The narrator has left the city and wandering through pasture meadows. “You see, the landscapes are horizontal again. The planet is metered in lines, A to B for as far as I can see. A to B and back again.  Fair enough, but show me the books and I’ll burn every one of them. On the fire.”  (pg 13).  Again, the contrast between vertical and horizontal. First reference to the linear perspective, “A to B and back again”.  And first reference to burning the books.  But it’s willful. It’s the narrator’s threat.  Why?  Why does the narrator threaten to burn the books? It’s a foreshadow of what’s to come.

“You sneak a look around the corner, take a look and hop along.  It’s the first time that you’ve seen me naked…The sad memory of ancient Springtime surges through our veins.” (pg 13).  Naturalist description of bodiness. Animalistic, even. But this ancient innocent memory contrasts with everything that the 20th century has dumped upon them.  One of the books themes is how to reconcile the possibilities of innocent or life affirming love and body almost without identity, with the desecration of body in the light of identity, history and heavy handed cultural ideology.

No=city, staring up, vertical perspective, garden walls.

Yes=birds, fields, sea, the beginning of body freedom.

If the world around the narrator wasn’t so categorically denied, and the innocent time so idealized, the books wouldn’t need to burn.  Burning the books won’t bring ancient Springtime, but this narrator is restless.


Social Repression and Maya’s War Machine

(Continuing analysis from Summer 2013) Here also, the first reference to mass graves or mass death, the gaping grave, like folding oceans, edges its way both into time and space so that I might measure some concept of myself by it.” (pg 9). Here the bleakness of the theme.  The narrator has trouble defining himself with terms that haven’t been stained by 20th century atrocities in Europe and across the Balkans, SE Asia, and the rest of the developing world.  Of particular importance is the holocaust and mass graves in the way he associates bodies and defilement by regimes of history.  The narrator wants to shout out his love, but is overwhelmed by the previously mentioned atrocities.  If identity is formed from memory and memory has been tainted or corrupted by atrocities or suppressive Judeo-Christian ethics, the story develops as an examination of self or an identity crisis in the fullest meaning.   The stain of this past is a driving force in Diamond Signature. It is part of the Social that the narrator is trying to absolve himself from.   “Where now? Where but the despondency of memory, the dullness of past, the poison of reason and the darkness of my histories?” (pg 9).   This part reminds me of intro to Marquis de Sade’s Prison Letters. He viciously describes the role of the social in constraining, repressing, and shaping the individual so that they fit into society like puzzle piece. Pg 9, first reference to Pierrot, “Pierrot dances his dance of sorrow, scattering logic in his mental paper chase. We’ll hear more of Pierrot, after all he’s no angel.” (pg 9-10) pg 10, first reference to Maya. “Here and there I’ll collide with boulders of the past, energetic fragments of an illusion named Maya.  She, for Maya is said to be a woman, pursues upon her silver war-machine. her satin robes have run across my whole being, caught my mind and sought my body.” (pg 10).  Why Maya?  What symbolism comes from the name Maya?  Notice, “Her name, her name, a thousand times her name. Floating, pulsing shapes that are ships in grey docklands.”  (pg 10).  He wanted to shout his name across grey rooftops but was somehow denied. Yet for Maya, her name becomes synonymous with the grey battle ships and freight liners. Pg 11, first reference to Enola. The Enola Gay was the plane that carried the Hiroshima bomb. Still, I don’t get the Maya vs Enola theme. “By Christ how emptily I lie.” (pg 11). Narrator is actually saying the offer of Christ is an empty offer. The narrator may be empty too, but so is Christ. “my presence is confirmed by the body on the couch.” (Pg 11). Existential pun. “I struggle to say her name, panic in my inability to form words.  Order dissipates and I become part of a greater order in which there are no names.  What remains of my identity is diffused by the light.” (Pg 11). “Maya is a crusty girl who shovels her love onto me, a wanton girl: harridan” (pg 11). Maya is both a promiscuous woman and a strict, bossy old woman. In this way she seems to have contempt for him.  Offering her body for the price of his soul. (2 July 13 7:15am.  Notions of selling the body or soul for pleasure, but the landscape described isn’t pleasureful. It’s London Industrial drear.)

How we remember the past doesn’t change the past

(continuing the page-by-page analysis from summer 2013)

He then goes from questioning personal self to cultural histories, “These cultures come and go with a boundless enthusiasm for histories that might never have existed.” (Pg 9).  The Post-modern question sliding from personal to macro-political.  Body and soul. Form and content. Turn from form into content.   [Here’s where I rejected part of the books premise and I still do.  For me, the past existed.  What we know of it now might be shaped through interpretation of history or revising the past to suit and justify the present.  But the past as a material reality existed.  Then it had its own cultural cloud and now it has a different one.  But there’s so much evidence supporting that life existed in the past, that to deny the material reality completely because the explanation or rationalization has been altered, seems to me a logical fallacy that deconstruction falls into with separating the author from what they write on purely philosophical grounds. The separation which leads to being irresponsible for what happened in the past.  Chief example, “Paul DeMann” and the Death of the Author being related to his separating himself from his incriminating Nazi sympathizing articles he wrote during World War Two ]  The narrator responds to this threat of Void, “If there is nothing, I too am nothing. So how can I describe for what this means to me? Easy, I do not dream alone. I’ll borrow words and the pasts that they describe.” (pg 9). 

Lobotomist, the knife, and re-claiming sexuality

First reference to the lobotomist, “These are virgin births. Yes, the lobotomist is bathed in light.” (pg 7), and after an inane conversation with an old lady at the café, he asks, “Have I so demeaned my body that I am no longer seen to exist?”(pg 7). Existence without body is not existence.  “I speak with a voice that is not mine, articulate platitudes with great facility.” (Pg 7). He desires to attain a more meaningful existence.

First reference to Lilith, pg 7.

Example of word play, “I tear myself from the seat. The reality that I leave behind groans in bodiless anguish.” (pg 7).

First Christ ref, pg 7.

The narrator throws up outside the supermarket, “the puke is the only true reiteration of my existence. I’m sick of the sight of myself.” (pg 8). Puke being abjected from the body.  A form of self/non-self that’s a more bodily rejection that excrement which is more routine self-purging.  Then “Vade ad gehennan”, approximately “Go to the Valley of Hinnom, (Valley of the Wicked).”  Possible footnote required for clarity.

From there, the critical question, “Is my body now so lost? Is it drowned in seas of guilt and remorse? What kind of inheritance is this?” and the brilliant image describing social/cultural suppression of sexuality in one phrase, “I’ve got the balls for it, but they’re bound in cotton-wool rhetoric.” (pg 8).  Followed by the defeatist-not-yet-defeated “So how do I reclaim a lost manhood when in all probability that manhood was never found in the first place?…For as long as I fear the stirring of my own sexuality, I am lost.” (pg 8). The question of searching for his body is asked like the question of searching for identity.

Immediately after these questions, he first refers to his schoolboy photo and questions his association with the way he represented as a child. It’s the larger theme of reconciling static images of repressed public self with the fluid, personal evolving self.

“The Diamond Signature: A sub-contract reality”

(Original attempt to write about Rimbaud’s Diamond Signature begins here)

Early July 2013

Notes on Penny Rimbaud’s “Diamond Signature”  beginning July 2013. Note: actual quotations are Italicized in bold.

One of the most difficult aspects of this book is the lyrical nature of the philosophy.  Although contained within it are brilliant images or linguistic sets that linger for years in my memory, its abstract nature makes it daunting to explore.  One of my intentions is to map a coherent logical argument as best as I can.  Although the book’s overall tone is bleak and possibly defeatist, it responds to defeatism.  The book is not without its content and stylistic merits.

To enable a more thorough look at the flow of the book, I intend to summarize key points in each its sections.  It’s divided into 4 books. Within each book are 10-20 parts.  Each Book begins with a passage from Walt Whitman’s poem “I Sing the Body Electric”.

At the end of the book Diamond Signature, is a spoken word discourse that divides the main points of view of the story into characters Yes, No, and Maybe.  The book offers a well-spoken, well-written summary of the Diamond Signature, but I’m returning to the book itself to look at the more raw writing, hoping to get better insight into the book’s intent.


Full title:  “The Diamond Signature:  A sub-contract reality”

Beginning epitaph from Genesis 1, about God dividing dark from light, earth from sky, body from soul.

Book One: I Sing the Body Electric.

Part One. The Tempest.  

The opening scene is of a man and woman making love on a city rooftop, on a bed of white.  Here’s the first of many questions the narrator asks, “Why white?” (pg 5)

Her answer is she’s white because she’s the virgin of his dreams to be used.

He wants to celebrate his own name and identity in exalted tones across the drab skyline.

The narrator refers to the subsequent story as his “satori”, Japanese word for Sudden Awakening.

Says his touch distorts everything, but  “the lines are so well described.” (pg 6).  Here he establishes his theme of lines and perspectives.

First reference to the knife, a reoccurring theme: “I pay for the tea, toast and egg. I slice the yoke. In a stroke the deep yellow follows the knife across the plate…already there are redefinitions.” (pg 6). Knife, slicing, redefinition.  This turns to body and cutting later.