Saturday, April 01, 2017


     Oh what a disappointment this book was. I think a big part of my problem was that I bought into the hype of Universal Harvester hook, line and sinker. I first heard about it in a review from the New York Times and thought this might be worth hunting down. The review speaks of a young man working at a video rental store in the 90's who is troubled by reports of weird footage being spliced into the VHS tapes, Soon after I read another reviewer who compared Universal Harvester to Mark Danielewski's brilliant book House Of  Leaves. That was all I needed to hear - I was sold! I bought the book and counted down the days until it's arrival, finishing up the John Le'Carre novel just in time.

     Opening up the envelope in which it arrived I was shocked at how short a novel it was. House Of Leaves is a hefty 700 plus page book, while this one is just over the 200 mark with the help of some creative padding out. Universal Harvester is written by a member of the band The Mountain Goats, something that I appreciated, but wasn't what drew me to it. I was attracted to the idea of a horror thriller set in a small town in Iowa, and for the first 30 pages I wasn't disappointed. Jeremy is the main character of the book, and he has experienced some tragedy in his life with the loss of his mother in a car crash. Along with his father he seems to be getting by the best that they can, but Jeremy struggles with the idea of not really knowing what to do with his life now that he is a "grown up". He seems to be flailing in the wind of indecision and mired in the comforts of his routine life. Truth be told this book is more about the uncomfortable transitions that we all make as we drop the term young from in front of adult, especially when that young adult has no real sense of purpose yet feels a strong sense of responsibility to do the right thing.

Nevada, Iowa
     If you google images of Nevada, Iowa - where this story takes place - you see a familiar small town vista to us Midwesteners. One thing that I did appreciate about this book is all of the small town agricultural and Iowa references that he managed to sneak into it. If you know this world at all you have just got to love it - much like the way Craig Finn of the Hold Steady will name drop a place or location in his songs that can only be recognized by a local or Minnesotan. But the notion of this being a thriller quickly starts to fall apart. At times Darnielle writes from the stand point of the characters, but then seems to become the voice of some all knowing all seeing being capable of knowing the future and the past. It begins to sound like a detective reading from his files, or a historian looking back on old news clips. It can be a bit confusing, and I'm not an easily confused reader. As the story unfolds we do find out that yes someone did splice odd video clips into VHS tapes, some of which find their way to the store where Jeremy works. His boss decides to look into it when she recognizes the location of the strange video clips. Does she find some kind of serial murderer, or something paranormal, or even a logical explanation to these strange video phenomenon? No, not really. She finds a sad woman who is a bit off her rocker and is missing the mother that she lost as a child. She didn't really lose her per say; her mother joined a religious cult in the 1970's and left both her daughter and husband behind. In a long, vague sort of way that doesn't really need to be related here, these odd video splices are her attempt to keep her mother's image alive long after she disappeared from her life.


     SO THERE YOU HAVE IT - I JUST GAVE AWAY THE GOODS HERE. There is no spooky ghost story or a thriller. It is a story of loss and how one copes with it. Except Universal Harvester.s story isn't really told in a good or entertaining way. I'm not saying that grief should be entertaining, not at all. But this is a story and I like good stories. This just isn't a really good story. So if you got excited by the reviews for this book too, and decided to add it to your reading list I suggest you remove it. Read or reread  Danielewski's House Of Leaves instead. That book will not disappoint.


No comments: