‘Young Adults of the Corn: A Review of John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester’, by Matthew Hickey

“People shoot movies on soundstages that they try to make look like Nevada,” writes John Darnielle early in his second novel, Universal Harvester. They mostly fail in their efforts, though, unable to recreate the odd sense of claustrophobia that arises from rural sprawl, with cornfields that “flicker against the window like stock footage” as characters commute along quiet highways. Of course it’s not just the atmosphere they miss about a place like Nevada (Ne-vay-dah – the town in Iowa, not the state to its west) but the inhabitants, the people who are born, live and die happily there. In studio films, the kind that can afford soundstages, a small town is less a setting than a symbol, and its population—those who are ‘trapped’ or ‘left behind’, etc.—ciphers in service to this symbolism. It’s a motif not lost on twenty-something video store clerk Jeremy Heldt, who spends his days cataloguing and rewinding movies. His hometown is simply fodder for reflection and backstory, where characters “complain about how awful it was there, or, later, to remember it as a place of infinite promise.”

Jeremy lives alone with his father, having lost his mother in a car accident six years earlier. The two of them usually eat dinner together and watch a movie afterwards – middling, then-recent blockbusters like Reindeer Games (this part of the novel is set in the nineties). Jeremy considers himself “a little more high-minded than his dad, but they both disappeared into the screen’s glow at about the same time.” The television, the great equalising force of popular culture, so often portrayed as an insidious, homogenising force, is here recast as a unifying activity, a way for characters to bond and relate to each other.

It’s Jeremy who first learns of the extra scenes spliced into Video Hut’s copy of Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, and that later appear in She’s All That as well. The eerie clips are dark, frequently set in a barn, and sometimes feature a hooded figure. Jeremy thinks it should be left alone; his boss, Sarah Jane, thinks otherwise, and Jeremy is soon covering shifts as she spirals deeper into the mystery that nominally comprises the first part of Universal Harvester. Despite the tense premise, though, it remains almost background action, an inconvenience more than a source of excitement. Jeremy’s initial reticence to pursue its implications is less a ‘Refusal of the Call,’ per Joseph Campbell’s narrative framework that’s been imported into countless middling blockbusters then and now, than it is part of Darnielle’s playful treatment of narrative expectations. Of greater concern to Jeremy is finding an opportunity to resign from Video Hut in person to Sarah Jane, perhaps out of loyalty, but also partly to buy extra time for processing this change in his life. The new job, a potential long-term career with a local timber and carpentry company, could be cast as an “unvarying daily regimen of unglamorous tasks.” But this isn’t Hollywood, and Jeremy isn’t concerned. Instead, he’s “what was the word – inspired?” In that question mark is much of the confusion Darnielle’s characters feel about their own lives, the smallness of their ambitions frequently mocked by the cultural products they love. Sarah Jane is excited to have something out of ordinary occur, something that seems like a purpose. For Jeremy, though, the struggle is more in coming to terms with his contentedness, realising he is happy, not stuck, in choosing a life that would never translate onto the silver screen.

Lisa Sample, who owns the eerie barn featured in the eerie clips, also grew up with just a father. The novel’s second part is an extended flashback to the Seventies where Darnielle shows the gradual absorption of her mother, Irene, into a travelling group of devotees and their charismatic preacher. Lisa’s father, Peter, is unsure how to discuss Irene’s troubling behaviour – every rehearsed attempt at raising the topic “sounds like something an actor in a movie would say.” A generation apart from the hyper-mediated Gen X-ers of the novel’s first section, Peter is no more successful at escaping the paralysing comparisons to cinema. While the youth expect their life should match up with the movies, Peter is concerned that any similarities reflect an insurmountable inauthenticity. And though pop culture representations may strain characters internally, it still acts as the glue that holds them together.

Shortly before her permanent departure, Irene bursts home early and interrupts her husband and daughter curled up together on the couch watching television. In the world of Universal Harvester, exclusion from this bonding ritual is perhaps the strongest sign of isolation, and portends to a more permanent absence from the family.

The characters of Universal Harvester share with us a world that includes films like Reindeer Games, Targets and She’s All That, and film-going readers will also have internalised these films, carrying their logic and emotional forces. Much of the novel’s pleasure comes from how Darnielle exploits these aspects of a shared cultural imagination. The plot has the narrative ornaments of classic horror—missing people, religious cults, isolated settings, mysterious video footage, cornfields (which we’re told can smother a human voice within “just a few rows”)—and yet Darnielle consistently and deliberately fails to deliver on expectations that arise from such a setup. Universal Harvester is a book that tells you clearly how it should be read, though: frequent narrative intrusions temper our growing suspicions about how or if various narrative threads will reach a resolution. “It would be great to tell you that you’re going to see Irene Sample again,” Darnielle tells us halfway through, before confirming that no such reappearance is in store. Even earlier, we are told that Jeremy “sometimes finds himself replaying the payoff he’d first imagined” upon solving the mystery he is dragged into. In this case, there is an answer to the mystery—a culprit, a motivation—but it’s neither neat nor unexpected. It just is, and if you expected more then you weren’t paying attention.

In interviews, Darnielle namechecks French authors like Mathias Énard, whose celebrated novel Zone is told in a single 400-page sentence, and Alain Robbe-Grillet, a leading figure of the Nouveau Roman movement, whose characters can change names unexpectedly and whose mysteries frequently open up rather than narrow down meanings and possibilities. It’s not just intellectual posturing; the book shows an interest in formal inventiveness. Darnielle takes fewer risks than these influences, though, limiting his inclinations mostly to plot while missing other opportunities to play with structure that could have better simulated the abrupt interruptions of creepy footage within otherwise linear narratives. For instance, the different timelines needn’t have been offset so clearly, with numerical title pages for each section. The novel also shifts between a more common free indirect style and short passages narrated by a character whose identity is unnecessarily withheld until the conclusion, ending the novel on a rather flat note in one of the few moments that feels like a traditional payoff to an extended set-up.

Another French writer that seems an important reference for Darnielle is Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano, whose small-stakes mysteries in novels like In the Café of Lost Youth or the novellas in Suspended Sentences are often devices for considering time and the fallibility of memory. Darnielle’s first novel, Wolf in White Van, opens with a memory of its main character being carried down the hallway by his father – a “cluster memory,” we are told, a composite consisting of “every time it happened” recalled at once. In Universal Harvester, characters try to hang onto the fading memories as they grieve for missing family members. Darnielle opens his acknowledgements by nothing that “this book is largely about mothers,” even though they are largely absent. Jeremy and Lisa are both, in a sense, stunted; Jeremy is the better adjusted of the two, but one suspects that his sense of geographic permanence is in part a way of preserving the mother who haunts the landscape.

Grief arises in the wake of horror, and Darnielle is aware of the potential for grief to overwhelm fear. Those looking for the “horror-infused thriller” being marketed by Scribe may be disappointed to find something much quieter and slower. Those genres often take place over short periods of time, with characters concerned mostly with immediate survival. Universal Harvester stretches out over decades; it is a horror story about the negative spaces in most horror stories.

Darnielle is that rare writer without a supporting professorship or editing gig. Instead, he’s the singer-songwriter behind The Mountain Goats, a successful folk-ish band whose narrative lyrics are often lauded by a certain segment of critics (see also: Okkervil River). While his musical interest in the way narratives are packaged is no doubt present in Universal Harvester, a more pressing musical analogue to the novel is William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, a four-part series released over 2002-2003 that is haunting, understated and infused with a sense of loss. The albums are the result of failed attempts to digitise decades-old tape loops that decayed as they were being recorded. With each pass of the tape head we hear Basinski’s stretched instrumentals crumble, becoming grainier and more distant. What he ended up capturing was the sound of memories fading, of physical media breaking down.

Universal Harvester’s nineties setting was a time when memories were physical – stored on magnetic tapes that took up actual three-dimensional space in family living rooms. Weddings, birthday parties, first steps, even just everyday things, were contained within black boxes with dates on their spines and piled up in television units. While home movies are a way of fighting the natural tendency of memories to fade or alter, these physical artefacts are themselves, as Basinski so beautifully demonstrated, vulnerable to loss or distortion – the fuzziness, the rolling images, the breakages, the potential to be recorded over. There’s a relationship between memories and the media we use to document them, just as there is a relationship between popular culture and the memories that we form around it, and the novel leaves a trail of connective allusions around these two themes.

The novel is also, in a way, of work of nostalgia: the final section opens with a camera store closing down. “We’re not really needed any more,” says the owner, brandishing an iPhone. His children soon inherit the mystery of the video footage, this time piecing it together mostly from online research. It’s a faster process, less romantic and cinematic than long drives in the night, but even with these new tools at their disposal the conclusion remains much the same as it did in the nineties. The old Video Hut has almost certainly closed down, and gone with it is the opportunity for a project like the one that incites much of the novel’s action. In their sleuthing, though, the children are forced to watch the found footage on VCR. Huddled around a television together with their family, the eeriness of the scenes almost reflects the growing strangeness of this moment, a unified viewing experience.

Part one of Universal Harvester ends with Jeremy finding his colleague Ezra in a car crash. Although the circumstances are completely different, Jeremy can’t help but recall his mother’s death, and in doing so has altered that original memory in some irretrievable way – becoming a sort of “cluster memory” of automobile tragedies. A trunk load of borrowed VHS tapes leads to the wreckage off the side of the highway, the plastic cases crushed and scattered. Scenes of studio-approved car crashes degrade and deform as tape “ripples in the wind” – and the quiet, corn-lined highway of Nevada fulfills, if only briefly, its frequently depicted savage potential.

In his most heroic, film-worthy moment, Jeremy pulls Ezra from the car and carries him to safety. It’s a scene perfect for a soundstage, but again he shrinks from the action. The perspective instead shifts to a battered Ezra who, even when semi-conscious, can’t help but notice how the orange sheets of the sunset look like the coloured bars in the title screen of a film he’d once seen.

Matthew Hickey is an Australian writer. He lives in New York, where he is an editor of Harper’s Magazine.