“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.