This is my review of Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
I never came to understand why this novel is called “Universal Harvester”. It is well-written and original, but with its unresolved ambiguities, lack of development of the key characters apart from motherless Jeremy Heldt and his bereaved father, and rather limp conclusion, it left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied.
Part One of this short novel is very promising, a page-turning psychological drama which subtly develops a sense of unease, even menace in a small Iowa town where nothing much happens and men pass the time of day talking about fishing. In danger of sinking into a rut at the local video rental store (VHS tapes because it’s the end of the 1990s), Jeremy Heldt begins to receive complaints about videos with “something” on them, and then becomes obsessed himself by the unsettling shots someone has managed to insert into certain films. The spare prose is effective not only in its vivid evocation of rural/ small-town life, creating a strong sense of place, but also in the portrayal of the relationship between Jeremy and his father as they try to provide mutual support and respect each other’s grief.
The second part dispels the illusion that this is working up to being a tale of horror or detective thriller, rupturing the narrative drive with an abrupt switch back to the 1960s with the focus on a different set of characters. The style become more “exposition” rather than reveal what goes on in Irene Sample’s mind to cause a dramatic and life-changing action on her part.
Although it seemed clear who was responsible for altering the tapes, in the last two sections, my frustration grew over the unresolved ambiguities as to why and exactly how this was being done, including what induced, even forced, others to take part as “actors”. The author begins the acknowledgements with: “This is a book largely about mothers”. The only reason I can see for inclusion in Part Four of the Pratts, who come to rent the house where the tapes were altered some years previously, is to introduce a “normal happy family” of comfortably off Californians to provide a contrast with those rendered dysfunctional by the loss of a mother. With perhaps rather thoughtless complacency, the Pratts display the confidence and resilience borne of good fortune that is only mildly or temporarily thrown off course by a troubling sense of other people’s distress. They also demonstrate how differently, partially and inaccurately strangers may view a place compared with previous occupiers unknown to them.
Having just read William Faulkner’s “As I lay dying”, I noted some similarities in the frequent focus on small details rather than the main issues, which one often has to deduce, in the switches in viewpoint and in the idea that mystery of the altered tapes, even the effects of losing one’s mother, are not the essence of the story. This seems to lie in the nature of being, in which, for instance, people may cease to exist for us when they move out of our lives, or the difficulty of knowing what went on in a house or place before one lived there.
“She wondered what had gone missing from Iowa before she ever got there. There is no way of knowing. That’s what pictures are for, after all: to stand in place of the things that weren’t left behind, to bear witness to people and places and things that might otherwise go unnoticed”.