John Darnielle’s recent novel Universal Harvester does not belong to the mystery genre exactly, however it does raise a lot of questions that we hope for a big payoff at the end when we realize all of the missed clues scattered throughout the story. Or perhaps the book could leave us with more questions than answers but still be satisfying in the way that it does so while still hinting at its meaning. Sadly, despite the intriguing ideas and tone Universal Harvester follows through on neither promise.
Jeremy Heldt, in his early twenties, works at a video store in the late nineties and still lives with his father. Their mother died six years earlier in a car crash, and her loss still looms over the household. After a couple of customers returned tapes to the store complaining that they contained some home-recorded footage spliced into the videotape that they rented, he examines the footage. It turns out to be incomplete scenes that depict weird moments in a shed somewhere, including people underneath a tarp getting kicked by somebody whose face we never see and a woman whose head is covered in a hood being asked to do strange things such as standing on one leg.
Jeremy, Stephanie (one of the customers) and Sarah Jane (the store’s owner) each try to unravel the mystery of these scenes. Sarah Jane finds the house in a neighboring town (the bulk of the story takes place in Nevada, Iowa) that she identifies from the videos. She meets the woman who lives in the house, Lisa Sample, who at first denies any knowledge of the videos but ultimately befriends Sarah.
We then get Lisa’s backstory, or rather her mother Irene’s, for a good portion of the book. We learn that she becomes disenfranchised with life with her family, having moved away from her familiar church. She gets sucked into a traveling religious sect (possibly a cult) and her husband and daughter search across the country to find her.
The book takes a slow, quiet place despite these strange happenings, giving it a sort of Twin Peaks feel. Amidst the main events of the story we see Jeremy’s father starting to date again and Jeremy’s struggle with future work prospects, not wanting to disappoint Sarah Jane. The book starts off in third person and remains that way for the bulk of it, but occasionally the narrator switches to first, revealing that we’re reading somebody’s attempt years later to piece together the story from multiple sources. Aside from the videotapes, this is the biggest mystery of the book: who is this stranger? How will we find out?
Unfortunately, the ending ties most of the story up too nicely and yet unevenly and the reveal of the narrator is disappointing. The ending is only unpredictable by just how predictable it is. The story up to that point is so intriguing that the end feels like a let-down. It works, it makes sense, but it shouldn’t have to. There’s also something about the narration of first person that really irritates me at the end but I can’t give away my gripe without giving away a major spoiler. (Likewise, one of the big questions of the book isn’t answered exactly but only hinted at—at least Darnielle leaves that one up to interpretation.)
This isn’t to say that Universal Harvester isn’t worth reading. Right up to the ending the book is intriguing and it isn’t exactly a “whodunnit” anyway. But I wish the payoff at the end had more of an impact than it had, in order to drive the themes of the book home more.
This is just a quick note at the end to say that I will be skipping next week’s book review. I have to catch up on too many other projects, including some other reading, that I’m going to take the time to work on those over the next few days and won’t have time to read a new book to review.