Published Feb 05, 2017Storytelling is just as much about form as it is about content. And when you're as great a storyteller as John Darnielle, you're going to switch things up a bit to keep your audience and yourself engaged.
Often considered one of modern music's greatest lyricists for his work in the Mountain Goats, Darnielle tends to stretch out in his books, adding more exposition and temporal twists to his typical suburban pensiveness. Yet, while the concepts may be more elaborate, his focus remains sharply on character; at the heart of Universal Harvester are the same complex, nuanced individuals Darnielle has been bringing to life lyrically for decades.
When found footage depicting a possible kidnapping at a nearby farmhouse appears on a series of tapes at a local video store in smalltown Iowa, it prompts an amateur investigation by a ragtag group of townies: wayward 20-something Jeremy, whose dead mother may or may not be featured in one of the tapes; tenacious young teacher Stephanie, whose ambitions to leave town are both helped and hindered by the mystery; video store owner Sarah Jane, whose wistfulness is overtaken by an obsession with the mysterious videos; and Lisa, a woman whose house bears a striking resemblance to the one on the tapes.
Things come to a halt, plot-wise, when Darnielle jumps back in time to shed some light on Lisa's origins, a detour that puts the brakes on the riveting mystery. This becomes a recurring feature of the book; any moment the plot comes into focus, Darnielle abruptly changes character perspective or jumps to another time period.
His 2014 debut novel, Wolf in White Van, depicted the story of the reclusive creator of a play-by-mail role-playing game, with a Memento-esque structure paralleling the book's underlying debate between fate and free will. In Universal Harvester, the book meanders so much that the point very well could be about how, no matter how hard we try to uncover life's mysteries, there will always be some loose threads, never to be tied up. It's an important lesson to be learned, but it's posited so obliquely here that it's not apparent whether or not it's intentional.
By Universal Harvester's end, it's unclear whether or not the characters actually solved the mystery — it's alluded to vaguely as the narrator looks back on the events a decade or so later, in another case of Darnielle's storytelling experiments superseding the action — but that doesn't really feel like the point here, anyway. Ultimately, Darnielle's exemplary world-building and character development are the focus in Universal Harvester, so though the form falters, the content certainly delivers. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)