Friday, March 31, 2017

Universal Harvester: a Novel

Universal Harvester: a Novel / John Darnielle, 214 pp.

I think - I can't be entirely sure - but this might be one of the coolest novels I've read in a long time.  My uncertainty is on account of the fact that I didn't completely understand this strange and deeply atmospheric story.  At a Video Hut in a small Iowa town in the 90s, customers start complaining that their videotapes have strange segments spliced in.  When Jeremy, Video Hut's gentle twenty-something clerk, and a curious friend take the tapes home to look, they are deeply disturbed.  People with bags over their heads and peculiar markings on their clothes struggle to free themselves.  A lone woman runs terrified down a dark highway flanked by dry rows of corn.  Worse still, a few background bits make clear that these are local productions.

At first my reaction was, "Great!  Children of the Corn meets Blair Witch meets The Ring."  But Darnielle is aiming higher here.  At root, this novel is about loss: of parents, of small town life,  and of (perhaps) climate norms.  But these losses are achingly explored through the unfolding of a terrifying mystery, one that the reader never gets to look at directly, but only glimpses in fragments.

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