Surprising ‘Universal Harvester’ ponders how one finds meaning in life

Contemplative mystery takes place within ’90s-era video culture.

Just as records on vinyl have made a comeback, so have movies on videocassette been rediscovered in a digital age. Videophiles praise the social aspects of video store culture, the kitschy artwork on VHS boxes and even compare the distortions of video tracking to the hiss and pop of vinyl albums.

For his second novel, "Universal Harvester," John Darnielle uses a tribute to bygone video stores and the process of watching movies on videotape as a launching pad for a discussion of bigger issues. Darnielle gives a loose structure to a central mystery that leaves plenty of room for themes about the claustrophobic ties of home, the trajectory of human lives and the power of mass media to connect people in unintended ways.

The frontman for the Durham, N.C.-based band The Mountain Goats, Darnielle won acclaim for his debut novel "Wolf in White Van" in 2014. While his sophomore effort doesn't always satisfy, the ambitious, media-savvy story consistently surprises.

Jeremy Heldt works in a Video Hut rental store in the small town of Nevada, Iowa, at the twilight of the video store era in the late ’90s. In his early 20s and reluctant to embrace adult responsibilities, Jeremy finds a distraction in a disturbing puzzle: seemingly random movies returned to the Video Hut contain short, enigmatic clips edited into the Hollywood fare. The brief, jittery scenes take place in darkened rooms and seem to show people in duress.

Are they pranks? Inexplicable cries for help? Weird home movies accidentally taped onto mainstream entertainment? One character suggests they could be viral marketing. Jeremy, Video Hut owner Sarah Jane Shepherd and regular customer Stephanie Parsons all investigate, culling the store’s inventory for clips and examining them for clues to their origin.

The strange sequences appear mostly on such forgettable films as “She’s All That,” suggesting that Darnielle may be making a joke about the disposability of pop culture. The notable exception is the 1968 thriller “Targets” from director Peter Bogdanovich. Darnielle takes time to describe how “Targets” follows parallel narratives – involving a sociopathic young sniper and an aging horror actor played by Boris Karloff – in a hint that “Universal Harvester” has similar ambitions.

The book has a set-up worthy of a modern-day “found footage” horror movie, but Darnielle quickly subverts expectations that he may be cultivating suspense or building to a punchy finale. Instead he explores the ways people find meaning in their lives in a more contemplative way.

On occasion, Darnielle makes abrupt changes in point of view and chronology, withholding explanations for as long as possible. At one point he rewinds several decades to follow Irene, a supporting character’s mother, to consider her life choices in leaving home, starting a family and eventually finding a religious faith in an unlikely setting.

Darnielle contrasts a “cinematic” narrative – the sleuthing storyline would easily suit a thriller screenplay – with a more self-consciously literary approach that draws on characters’ memories and unvoiced feelings. Darnielle’s decision places more value on narrative breadth than momentum, disrupting our emotional investment in Jeremy and the people in his social circle, while keeping the stakes relatively low on the surface.

An unnamed first-person narrator even chimes in with observations on plot details: “There’s a variation on this story so pervasive that it’s sometimes thought of not as a variation but as the central thread.” The passages read less like an investigator weighing evidence than a scholar reconstructing folklore from second-hand sources, adding a further layer of ambiguity to the action.

However heady the book becomes, it finds sympathy for its leading characters. In mourning over the loss of his mother, Jeremy carefully weighs decisions that can define his future: “You can kind of see it coming, the life you begin assembling in these awkward moments when somebody’s getting ready to offer you a job.” Other characters, unfulfilled by work or family, devote themselves to obsessions to give their lives meaning.

“Universal Harvester” implies a connection between religion and cinema as communal experiences that can draw people outside themselves. The novel’s title, taken from a famous farm equipment company, reflects such concerns and evokes the agricultural setting with words that could have spiritual or science fiction implications.

Against the sturdiness of tractors and silos, the book makes videotape and other media technology seem utterly ephemeral. Darnielle conveys an infectious love of watching movies on the VCR, and finds that tapes can have enduring connective power. Like messages in bottles, they can link strangers who couldn’t be more disparate. “Universal Harvester” leaves some of its questions for the reader to answer, but provides an unmistakably sincere love letter to the pleasures of video in a digital age.


‘Universal Harvester’

By John Darnielle

Farrar Straus Giroux

214 pages, $25.