Universal Harvester
February 8, 2017 6:39 AM - by John Darnielle - Subscribe

Jeremy works at the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s a small town in the center of the state―the first a in Nevada pronounced ay. This is the late 1990s, and even if the Hollywood Video in Ames poses an existential threat to Video Hut, there are still regular customers, a rush in the late afternoon.

John Darnielle (a.k.a. The Mountain Goats) presents his second novel after the acclaimed Wolf in White Van.
posted by Etrigan (3 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm busy inhaling the book right now, but I wanted to note (because I found this entertaining, if not exactly surprising, and suspect others might as well) that today's author reading in Cambridge featured JD namedropping Theodore Roethke, Anton Bruckner, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko right alongside shoutouts to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Parliament, and Star Wars.
posted by dorque at 7:42 PM on February 8, 2017

Finally got a chance to finish this (I kept starting and stopping and having to go back...), and it's definitely of a piece with Wolf in White Van but doesn't pull it off nearly as well. It felt a lot like The Tree of Life -- I see what Darnielle was going for, and I don't think he quite pulled it off, and it just wasn't my bag to start with.

Still, some haunting prose and imagery caught up in there, and once I got the chance to really get started on it, it was damn hard to stop.
posted by Etrigan at 12:39 PM on March 17, 2017

Just read this this weekend; Secretariat had read it and recommended back probably around when this post originally went up last year, and I finally got to it. One of those books where my reading accelerated over the course of it; I have a hard time reading a book at long stretches a lot of the time but I spent a couple hours on the couch last night finishing it off.

And I really liked it! I am still settling bits of it out in my mind, and though I probably won't actually set aside the time to do so I would like to reread it with an eye toward the narrative details and character-voice and plot and motivation issues that the first readthrough offer up.

But the day after finishing it, I've gone from liking it but feeling frustrated by a lack of tidy answers to really, really appreciating how the fragmented and incomplete structure of the narrative complements the themes and motifs of the stories within it. That I was left feeling at a loss, at having something taken from me by the way the book would bring a sudden stop and a lack of closure to threads of character or story, feels in this case central to the character experiences within the book.

It feels like a book that doesn't so much progress as accumulate, and that accumulation is done in a way that feels very clever in its construction but not remotely smug in that cleverness; there's some clear parallels here to how well Darnielle sometimes uses the whole length of a song to build up a structure more complex and more satisfyingly interdependent than most lyricists, not in a way that feels like it's showing off its cleverness so much as just using the creative space more elaborately than most folks do.

It's also the book I've most wanted to corkboard-and-red-string in a while, but not for the plot particularly; while I think it would be interesting to present a linear summary of the narrative and the character crossings, what I really am enjoying is stranding together all the repeated motifs, the parallels and doublings and callbacks (and callforwards I suppose), so much of it adding up to a complex portrait of Lisa Sample's oblique attempts to process her grief, and the leylines between her own grief and loss and that of the other characters in the story.

I feel like in the end it does a very good job of being what it is, and it mostly suffers for the ways it looks like it might be something else and then fails to live up to the genre/structure expectation of those somethings else that it isn't. It's a quiet meditation on loss and isolation and codependence and Midwestern stoicism and social networks. But it pitches very easily like a JJ Abrams TV series, and then fails to behave like one (and fails at that, if you're expecting it to behave that way, like such things fail, with failed promises and mysteries unanswered), which is probably its biggest problem and feels like one of marketing, not writing.
posted by cortex at 12:45 PM on September 18, 2018

« Older Book: Norse Mythology...   |  The West Wing: The Stackhouse ... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments