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Patrick R

Universal Harvester

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Universal Harvester is the second novel* by Wolf in White Van author and singer/songwriter of the Mountain Goats John Darnielle. I've been a huge fan of his music for a long time, and his literature feels like an extension of it. It has the same interest in geography, small towns, lonely people, and the rich interior lives of seemingly simple people. And it has the same tone. His song lyrics have been frequently described as "literary", so I guess it should be no surprise that his literature is so lyrical.

 

Universal Harvester's initial premise (video tapes returned to a late 90's video store have certain sections taped over with bizarre and disturbing content) sounds like the premise of a horror story (in fact, it sounds like this one (trailer maybe NSFW)) but as the story unravels in it's frequently baffling way, the horror drops off to reveal sadness and damaged people looking to heal however they can.

 

Wolf in White Van jumped around a bit in it's chronology but the way Universal Harvester jumps around between characters, places, times, and even tenses (there are frequent Vonnegut kind of interjections where it's unclear whether you are listening to Darnielle's or a character's thoughts, and even looking back I'm not 100% sure) seems over-aggressive to me at times. It feels like Darnielle deliberately tries to jerk the reader around, teasing them with a glimpse of What's Going On only to leap backwards or forwards in time 20 years, even in between paragraphs in the same chapter. The beginning of Part 4 of the book is such an intense fake-out I got completely flummoxed. I was frequently flipping back to previous pages trying to figure out if I misread or missed something, because an event (like the first time we see what's on the tape) would initially be presented one way only to be revealed later as being something else.

 

I really want to re-read it because at this point I don't know if there is a thematic purpose to his obfuscating the plot so much or not. I want to say maybe it's my fault for assuming this would be a horror novel, but he's the one who set it up that way. Right now I'd say I enjoyed the prose but I'm not sure how much I actually liked the book. 

 

*He also did a 33 1/3 book called Black Sabbath: Master of Reality which, unlike the rest of the books in that series, was a fictional novella instead of a non-fictional work of criticism.

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Just got the book and it's my next book to read. I loved his previous two books but I'm glad that you have said it's not a horror novel so I know that going into it instead of finding out halfway through and being disappointed.

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I'm enjoying the book.

 

The time and perspective jumping can really fuck with you. It'll be perfectly fine for a few paragraphs and in the next one jump in time or character abruptly and go back. It makes it hard to keep it.


Also, the change in from 3rd to it being written like a police report or an omniscient narrator whose reminiscing or contemplating the many moves a character could make in a certain scene send you for a loop.

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I liked the idea of ominous narrator (for example, how the narrator revealed being in some of the videos), but I don't think the execution was entirely successful. At times I could not help but feel that the book was trying to be a bit too clever for its own good. Are the occasional multiple-universes style sections where the narrator describes how things were in other versions of the story, supposed to refer to 

 

Lisa weaving stories for people she comes in contact with.

 

 

 
I preserved their stories, and when they had no stories, I gave them stories they could call their own, stories I trust they have carried with them in their travels beyond my reach, and I made of these stories a permanent record on tape. I filled in the parts I couldn't know or needed to change with bits and pieces of other people's stories: from the movies, I mean.
 

 

Also, is this referring to some specific event I had missed?

 
Quote

Phone records and computer logs obtained from the Nevada Police Department show no calls or e-mails from Jeremy Heldt, Stephanie Parsons, or Sarah Jane Shepherd during this period. The Ames Police Department's records document several phone calls from Collins years later, of course, but by then new people were involved—strangers; variables from the cloudy distant future.

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From what I understand from interviews, Darnielle wrote this somewhat stream of conscious (though he did outline), and I think there a lot of little details or lines that, in my memory, don't actually add up or make sense. I wonder if another read would do much to make them click, but even beyond the plot details he keeps deliberately vague (which I wasn't a fan of) there's a lot of character motivations I don't buy.

 

 

I know everyone grieves differently, but the was Lisa grieves feels very artificially constructed, and that Sarah Jane is drawn to help her to the point of retreating from her life I don't think I buy.

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I liked reading this book but in the end I found it very unsatisfying and awkward, especially when compared to the absolute elegance of Wolf in White Van.

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