Sunday, February 26, 2017

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle- Book Review

“Not everybody wants to get out and see the world. Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes you just want to figure out how to fit yourself into the world you already know.” - Universal Harvester by John Darnielle 

The back cover summary of "Universal Harvester" by John Darnielle is super unsettling and also incredibly intriguing. Jeremy works at a video rental store in a small town in Iowa during the late 1990's - his day to day work life is pretty relaxed and predictable. Suddenly, though, customers are returning tapes reporting a problem - there is something on the tape, something that doesn't belong. "Universal Harvester" follows Jeremy- and others affected by the tapes - past, present, and future. I enjoyed reading this chilling and unique book- check out my video review below or keep reading for more of my thoughts about this book.


Universal Harvester
by John Darnielle

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. It’s good enough for Jeremy: it’s a job, quiet and predictable, and it gets him out of the house, where he lives with his dad and where they both try to avoid missing Mom, who died six years ago in a car wreck. But when a local schoolteacher comes in to return her copy of Targets―an old movie, starring Boris Karloff, one Jeremy himself had ordered for the store―she has an odd complaint: “There’s something on it,” she says, but doesn’t elaborate. Two days later, a different customer returns a different tape, a new release, and says it’s not defective, exactly, but altered: “There’s another movie on this tape.” Jeremy doesn’t want to be curious, but he brings the movies home to take a look. And, indeed, in the middle of each movie, the screen blinks dark for a moment and the movie is replaced by a few minutes of jagged, poorly lit home video. The scenes are odd and sometimes violent, dark, and deeply disquieting. There are no identifiable faces, no dialogue or explanation―the first video has just the faint sound of someone breathing― but there are some recognizable landmarks. These have been shot just outside of town. In Universal Harvester, the once placid Iowa fields and farmhouses now sinister and imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding. The novel will take Jeremy and those around him deeper into this landscape than they have ever expected to go. They will become part of a story that unfolds years into the past and years into the future, part of an impossible search for something someone once lost that they would do anything to regain.
Accept this mysterious ride

For huge chunks of "Universal Harvester" I wasn't really sure where the story was going, who the narrator was, or what was even happening. Those are pretty huge pieces of the reading puzzle to be missing, and I know that this really bothers some readers- of which I am one. But, it actually worked in this book, for the most part. The unsettling feeling of the unknown fit with the premise of the book, intensified the sense of mystery, and just plain worked. Reading this book, there were many times where I'd stop, thinking I have no idea what is going on - but it wasn't an overly frustrated feeling,  as it would be typically. And I didn't want to stop reading even as I found myself reflecting on what I had just read, and trying to discern meaning and coming up short. Putting the pieces together is not so easily done in "Universal Harvester", but for the most part that didn't take away from my enjoyment.
Absolutely loved the writing

Darnielle, the author of "Universal Harvester, is also a singer/ songwriter who performs with his band The Mountain Goats. I had heard of The Mountain Goats, thanks entirely to John and Hank Green, but didn't make the connection between the author and his band until someone commented regarding the Mountain Goats on a picture I posted of "Universal Harvester.absolutely made the book to me. While the mysterious plot and interesting characters are excellent, the style of writing in "Universal Harvester"absolutely made the book for me. Darnielle creates such an amazing atmosphere in "Universal Harvester", one that it both mysterious but also predictably quirky. With excellent turns of phrase and descriptions, this book kept me happily reading, despite any frustrations about it's unconventional plot structure.

Cool, creepy, and chilling - with heart

The plot description of "Universal Harvester" immediately got my attention - how incredibly creepy,  to imagine someone splicing in a purposefully unsettling home movie into a video you have rented? Goosebumps. And while "Universal Harvester" isn't the scary story I was expecting, it was certainly chilling at times. One of my favorite storytelling devices Darnielle employed created a structure almost like a scary fireside story - he would suggest a way that the story is told that is unlike the way the story is told in the book.The effect was unsettling, cool, and had a creepy omniscience. At the same time, the book dealt with issues I wasn't expecting at all - loss and grieving. There are achingly heartfelt portions of the narration regarding the personal loss many of the main characters in this book have experienced and the impact this loss has on them is a motivating force throughout the story.

Things I Struggled With
Mostly, I struggled while reading " Universal Harvester" because I had expectations based on the summary. At the end of the book, the dedication mentions that the story is about mothers - after finishing the book, this really gave some shape and perspective to what I had read. I wish I had known this going in to the book, and I think it would be useful for people who like a little more guidance. I liked the story and the writing particularly, but I do not think I would pick up another book any time soon knowing that it had a similar structure.

Have you read "Universal Harvester"? What did you think about this story and its unique arrangement? Thinking about reading this book? Click here to find a copy at your local library or click below to view the book on Amazon!

Many thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for allowing me to read this book prior to publication. As a "girl about library", where books are always free, you can be sure that all opinions expressed are my own. Happy reading!


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