03 February 2017

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle


John Darnielle's first novel (after the uncategorizable critical novella Black Sabbath's Master of Reality), Wolf in White Van, got a lot of attention and made the longlist for the 2014 National Book Awards. I read it when it came out, since I adore Darnielle's work as singer-songwriter for The Mountain Goats, and thought maybe he'd be okay at writing novels, too, though I tried not to get my hopes up. After a few pages, I was entranced, and read the book quickly, almost in a fugue state, stopping only because at times I found it emotionally overwhelming. I never wrote about it because I didn't know how to do so in any way other than to say, "Go read this." To explain what made the book such a rich reading experience for myself would require delving into a lot of weirdnesses of personal response, useless to anybody else, and to talk much about the plot and structure would be to give away part of the novel's magic. I am not at all a spoiler alerter — quite the opposite, in fact, and I generally feel that any book or movie requiring a spoiler alert is a book or movie without much of interest beyond its plot machinations — but there are always exceptions, and the elegance with which Wolf shuffles and deals its information is such a carefully controlled performance that even to speak of the story's premise felt to me like a violation. (And it's not about Big Surprises. It doesn't take long to guess the big stuff; it's the way the information accumulates that is so powerful, so masterful.)

Universal Harvester is even more narratively tricksy than Wolf in White Van, but it seems to me much less harmed by description and analysis, and so I will offer here a few preliminary notes about the novel, with the assumption that you haven't read it but are, for whatever reason, nonetheless curious about its structure and effect.

photo by Tony Webster

Wolf
 is a monologue, and that's part of its power. There aren't many characters or events, relatively speaking, and so it is able to circle back again and again, until at the end what we have is a more-or-less complete picture of a few crucial moments in the narrator's life. It moves backwards in chronology, though not in a strictly linear way. (No coincidence that digging a hole is a central image in the book. Narratively, it digs deeper and deeper toward the one moment that changed everything in the narrator's life. Is there treasure there? is the question.)

Universal Harvester is not exactly a monologue. It seems to be a limited third-person narration, but it moves between various characters, and the limits of that third-person narration seem less and less certain as the pages turn. Then suddenly there's a first-person moment. It's jarring, though also easy to miss. Later, there are more, until slowly we realize we're not reading a third-person narrative, but a first-person one. The narrator is telling us a story, and they know they are. They offer us other possible storylines, even. Some readers may interpret the first-person moments to be insertions into what is otherwise a third-person text, and I think that interpretation can work, but I prefer to think of the whole as a story being told by this narrator, with their apparent omniscience being not actual omniscience, but the omniscience of anyone telling a story. I may be particularly inclined to such an interpretation from own interests in storytelling and narration (I've been known to gobble Bakhtin's essays like Sean in Wolf in White Van eats candy), but nonetheless the text justifies it and it feels right, giving us a way to understand a character who is, it turns out, central to the story but who is otherwise little more than a shadow. By assuming every word of the book is told to us by this narrator, we can, on a second reading or careful reflection, extrapolate a much fuller character than we could otherwise. The stories we tell, and the choices we make in telling them, reveal much about our ideas of the world and its infinite mysteries.

There are a couple of big secrets in the story, and they all connect to the narrator's identity. This is one of the great thrills of the book. As with Wolf, the narrative structure is inextricable from the narrative's meaning and implications. It's not just that Darnielle has chosen a good angle for the novel's point of view — that choice makes and breaks all novels — but that he has made the way his story is told a reflection of what that story is.

In some ways, my fear of revealing anything about Wolf and my caution in not revealing any of the secrets of Universal Harvester are unnecessary, because even if you knew everything, it's not the information that is so important as it is how the information is arranged and revealed. For me to arrange and reveal it in a true way, a way that shows the books' meaning and power, I would have to give you the books themselves word for word, a Borgesian 1:1 map of the world. There is still pleasure to be had in learning things from the books themselves and not from me telling them to you, but I think it's important to recognize that the mysteries that get revealed in these books are not just plot twists of the sort that cheapen so many novels, movies, and tv shows. The solutions to the mysteries aren't arbitrary, and they are significantly more meaningful than they are twisty.

In many ways, Universal Harvester is a story about storytelling, but it is not especially metafictional. Instead, it investigates — a key word for the book — what stories do to us and for us. It's about the metaphysics and epistemology of stories. At a time when a lot of writers are wondering what fiction can achieve in a world of horror, and if telling stories is anything other than a trivial act, we need such an investigation. The revelations are not simple, nor are they always comforting, but nonetheless, there is hope at the end of Universal Harvester. It's not necessarily hope for a better world, but rather for something like refuge.

The sense of refuge, of being able to live with certain ambiguities and unanswered mysteries, must be earned, and earning it is part of what, for lack of a better word, I'll call this novel's pedagogy. By submitting ourselves to this novel's story and structure, we learn not only how to read it, but how to value certain ways of thinking. It teaches a kind of patience and reflection. It asks us to re-think what we thought we already knew. It unsettles us as we get settled in.

I expect Universal Harvester may be a somewhat less satisfying book for people who loved Wolf in White Van, at least on a first read. Wolf's narrative and situation provided that book with real intensity, and while Universal Harvester begins with a certain intensity, it then quite deliberately puts the brakes on and cools things down. Partly, this is a matter of playing with genre expectations. More importantly, it's central to the book's purpose (as I read it).

The first (and longest) section of the book's four is basically a thriller/horror set-up. Customers at a rural Iowa video store (yes, this begins as historical fiction) complain about strange and unsettling images interrupting the movies they rent. Jeremy, a clerk at the store, becomes interested. He and a few other characters, including the owner of the video store, Sarah Jane, investigate. Sarah Jane starts behaving weirdly. Another clerk at the store is injured in a mysterious car accident. End Part One.

I found it gripping stuff. The writing style is different from that of Wolf in White Van, more straightforward, with shorter sentences. (Darnielle has said he reveres William H. Gass's sentences, so we might say Universal Harvester is a bit more "The Pedersen Kid" than The Tunnel.) The mystery is compelling, the characters and setting interesting, especially if, like me, you spent a lot of time in rural video stores long ago. In the first section, there's little to indicate the novel is going to be much more than a fun genre story.

Part Two is jarring. "Lisa Sample was born in Tama in 1968," it begins, and then it continues to patiently tell us the story of Lisa Sample's childhood. Where is this going? we wonder. Take us back to the car wreck! we might grumble. I want to know what happens! perhaps we cry. What is all this irrelevant family background stuff? Where's the horror story I was reading?!

Reader, I must admit I thought John Darnielle had lost it. I thought he might be letting the success of Wolf in White Van go to his head, that he might be trying to write a Very Serious Literary Novel, the sort of thing with lots of details irrelevant to anything other than the clunking accumulation of reality effects, the sort of books full of family stories, stories that require character lists and family trees and lots of leisure time and, preferably, a trust fund and a loft in Brooklyn, or, at least, a divan on which to recline. (Reader, I loathe those novels.) I am ashamed to admit this lack of trust. You would think that after admiring a person's work for many years I would not abandon him at the first scent of falter. Reader, forgive me. I am too often too quick to judge.

And John Darnielle does not falter here. A principle I give to students and often fail with myself is: Assume writers know what they are doing until the only possible explanation is that they don't. (This is not to say that writers usually do know what they are doing, as many themselves would admit they don't. It's simply a strategy to make the reading experience the best it can be.) I should have been especially careful in rushing to judge that the book had gone off the rails given that I know its editor is Sean McDonald, who is also Jeff VanderMeer's editor at FSG, and who by most accounts is quite extraordinary both in his willingness to allow writers to follow their own peculiar visions and in his attention to the details of texts and how they work.

The second part of Universal Harvester works much like the inserted footage in the videotapes. We're happily caught up in the story of She's All That or Targets when suddenly we're watching a different movie, one with a slower pace, one that seems not to have purpose, but which is nonetheless somehow unsettling. (Who are these people? we ask. Where are they? What are they doing? Why?)

And then, before we can really understand what we've observed, we're back to the movie we were watching before. Part Three picks up right where Part One left off. Though we don't know how it all adds up yet, we can't get Part Two out of our memory. The effect is like flashburn or a nagging itch or a phantom limb.

Part Four is like Part Two, a sudden lurch into what seems like another story. I had to reread the first pages of Part Four because I couldn't help thinking it was referring to characters we'd already met somewhere along the line. But no. It's all new. Except, also, it's not.

Therein lies the wonder: Part Four uses all we know (and think we know) from before and spins it around into something truly rich and strange. Everything comes together, and most of the mysteries are not so much solved as rendered less mysterious. What could've been a horror story played for creeps becomes an uncategorizable sort of story, one deep with sadness and yet also with survival. Sometimes, triumph is not about solving a mystery, but about surviving in mystery's midst. Harvesting, whether of information or of crops or of the details of life, is not the end point. What we make with what we have harvested is what determines fulfillment.

Wolf in White Van was an intense, emotionally wrecking experience, a true tour de force. Universal Harvester is less intense but no less satisfying in the end. There is a certain peacefulness in its final pages, well earned and beautiful, making it exactly the sort of ending I, at least, need in these troubled days. You may, too.


photo by Kevin B. Lee