NOTE: THIS REVIEW SORT OF CONTAINS SPOILERS. EXCEPT THERE AREN’T REALLY ANY SPOILERS. IT’S HARD TO EXPLAIN.
Two things I hate: when I look forward to a book for a long time and it doesn’t live up to my expectations, and when I enjoy the process of reading a book but the ending changes how I feel about it. Both of these happened, to some extent, with Universal Harvester.
I am a huge John Darnielle/Mountain Goats fan. I have the T-shirt that says “I only listen to The Mountain Goats.” I think Darnielle is one of the most brilliant lyricists writing today. He’s a poet. He’s a genius. And with his last book, Wolf in White Van, he wrote a complex, difficult, but also very rich novel. So I was really excited to see what he would do with his next foray into fiction.
Universal Harvester sets up a creepy premise worth of bestseller genre thrillers. In a video store (remember those?) in a small Iowa town, two people mention to Jeremy, the young man working behind the counter, a concern about two separate videos. In each case, a short section from the movie has been replaced with something different — another scene, from a blurry and disturbing home video, taped over or spliced into the movie. Once might just be a glitch, but twice? In the same video store? When scenes spliced into one of the movies seem to show someone held prisoner, perhaps being hurt — and when the location of one scene is recognizable as a local farm — Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, goes to investigate, and gets drawn into a weird web of circumstances.
So far it’s intriguing and beautifully creepy. And there are some things Darnielle does so very well, just as you’d expect from a writer of his stature. Setting — that Midwestern small-town late-90s feeling that is evoked so perfectly with tiny details. Characterization — Jeremy, Sarah Jane, Jeremy’s widowed father and his relationship with his son. In a later section of the book which travels back 30 years in time to another small town to reveal the backstory of a different character, Lisa Sample, we see the building and unravelling of a marriage in precise, heartrending detail. Everything is rendered with the care and precision you’d expect from a guy who can evoke a whole life in a three-minute song.
But here’s what you don’t have to do in a three-minute song lyric: plot. And this is where Universal Harvester fell down on the job, for me. Even given that this is not a genre thriller but a literary novel, and literary fiction allows for much more open-ended, less defined endings — even by that standard, I think the book fails to deliver on its promise. All throughout (and it’s quite a short book; I read it in a day) one piece of evidence adds to another to suggest a truly tantalizing puzzle with a breathtaking revelation that will tie it all together. Everything is building up to something big — but then it doesn’t.
Darnielle leads the reader along with the implicit promise that we will eventually understand who is making these tapes and splicing them into rental-store videos (we do learn that much) and why (we definitely do not; the explanation given is completely inadequate to what we’ve been shown this character doing). How and why does Sarah Jane get drawn in as deeply as she does? Why is another character driving down the road with a car trunk full of videotapes, and is a near-fatal accident really an accident? How does Lisa Sample’s childhood tie in here? Who is the “I” voice that sometimes slips through the omniscient third-person narration, who confesses to holding the videocamera? Why are there hints that all the evidence related to these events is now part of an investigation, and who is investigating? When, years later, a family from outside the community buys the old farmhouse and discovers the stash of videotapes, will the missing pieces finally fall into place?
The answers, in case you’re wondering, are: We don’t know; we don’t know; we don’t know; maybe Lisa but we’re not sure; we don’t know; and no, they won’t.
While I’m all for ambiguity and novels that don’t answer all the reader’s questions, I think Darnielle has taken trusting the reader a little too far here. The feeling I’m left with is not so much “I have to finish solving this puzzle myself, because the writer’s not going to do all the work for me,” and more, “The writer set up a puzzle far too clever to solve, and then just didn’t bother.” All the loose ends are left loose, and we never get the big payoff that seems to be coming. This novel was a delight to read because it is so beautifully written, and a lot of the delight — the wonderfully rendered, sparse dialogue that says so much, the insight into human nature and the life of small rural towns — is beautiful no matter where the plot goes. But when the plot goes nowhere at all, part of the pleasure of the journey is marred by the realization that all along, it was a journey nowhere.
Oh well. I’ve still got several dozen hours of Mountain Goats songs to listen to. In a song, nobody cares if you resolve your plot threads.