Universal Harvester

This book by John Darnielle starts off feeling like a horror novel (and it is marketed as such). It’s the late 90s, and Jeremy is in his 20s and working at a small-town video store in Nevada, Iowa. His mom died a few years ago, and Jeremy is living a quiet life with his dad, trying to figure out what to do next. And then some strange videos start turning up at the store. They seem normal enough—just an ordinary VHS tape of She’s All That or Targets—but partway through, the movie will stop and a few minutes of some other video will appear. A chair in a head, a woman with a canvas bag on her head, a farmhouse. Jeremy is mystified—and entranced. And, eventually, so is Sarah Jane, the owner of the video store. Sarah Jane thinks she recognizes the spot where the video segments are filmed. Will the answer be there?

Creepy premise, right? And the narration sometimes takes on a weird tone, that of an outside observer—a distant “I” who is related to the story but not part of it. What is going on?

Just as the book starts to delve into the mystery, it’s sidetracked into the story of a family that’s falling apart. The links to the original story gradually become clear, and the narration takes another turn, back to Jeremy, only it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on. And then we’re in something close to our present day, with a different family preparing to sell a house. Eventually, they end up in a country farmhouse with a shed. It’s all connected, but the narration is frustratingly disjointed.

The creepy setup leads into a story of loss and grief and trying to reach out for answers. The loss of mothers to death or abandonment is central. All of the characters are seeking answers they may never get. It seems to be a theme in my reading, as I’d just given up in frustration on Idaho by Emily Ruskovich, which is about a mother and unanswered questions. That book was populated with characters who behaved nothing like actual human people, and when I learned that the central mysteries are never even resolved, I couldn’t be bothered to read more.

In the case of Universal Harvester, the central mystery involving the videotapes is solved, but you have to read between the lines a bit. The mystery behind the losses are left hanging, and that’s okay. Part of what the book in interested in is the need to let go and move on, to get on with life. Everyone’s process is different. Maybe it means sitting at home and watching videos with your son every night for a few years, and maybe it means reaching out for answers wherever you can.

Even though I didn’t mind the lack of resolution, I was annoyed at the novel’s structure. The last two parts in particular turn from one perspective to another so quickly, I couldn’t ever get a handle on it. And I never had much reason to care for the final family, other than the fact that they may get at the truth.

Sometimes, too, I thought the story didn’t make any sense, given the time period. I was old enough in the late 90s (and so was John Darnielle) to know that you can’t make printouts from VHS tapes, yet people do that in this book. At one point, a character grabs an image using a Polaroid camera, which is possible, even though Polaroids were no longer mainstream but not yet retro cool. But then there’s an image printed on a dot matrix printer. What? It’s a trivial thing, something I might be able to overlook in a book I was more immersed in, but in this case, it added to the feeling of being jerked around unnecessarily.

It’s a strange thing, feeling manipulated by an author. Of course, all authors manipulate readers to some extent, by revealing and holding back information for the full effect. But I get irrationally annoyed when I notice it. The structure of this book, and the convenient improbabilities put me at odds with the story and left me unsatisfied. The writing is good, and I like the ideas in the book, but it lost me by the end.

Have you experienced this off-putting feeling of manipulation, or do you just accept that’s something all authors are doing? At what point is it too much?

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2 Responses to Universal Harvester

  1. Jeanne says:

    At the point I start to notice it, it’s too much. Part of making art is trying to make it seem, you know, artless!

    • Teresa says:

      I think the noticing is the problem. I know manipulation is often part of good storytelling, and I can sometimes forgive it, but I still see it as a flaw if I spot it without looking. (Sometimes after finishing, it’s fun to go back and pick apart the author’s tricks.)

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