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Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Universal Harvester (original 2017; edition 2017)

by John Darnielle (Author)

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1631073,133 (3.67)9
Title:Universal Harvester
Authors:John Darnielle (Author)
Info:Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2017), Edition: 1St Edition, 224 pages
Collections:2017, Your library
Tags:fiction, mystery, suspense, missing persons, film, movies, history, 1970s, 1990s, family, marriage, death, grief, unsettling

Work details

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle (2017)

  1. 00
    The Last Days of Video: A Novel by Jeremy Hawkins (sturlington)
    sturlington: These books are not at all alike except that they both feature small-town video stores, they are both by North Carolina writers, and they are both good reads.

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If you are of a certain age, you likely remember the video store as a regular stop on the errands run. And if you grew up in a small American town, you may remember the locally owned video store as a peculiar confluence of people and culture in a place where there wasn't a whole lot else to do. I have fond memories of our local video store and the woman who owned it, who always made hilariously bad movie recommendations. I could have worked there one summer as a teen but didn't, and now I wonder if that's the reason I missed out on a writing career.

Anyway, this book is not about a video store, although it does begin there. Jeremy is working in a small-town Iowa video store, biding his time while he figures out what to do with his life. A couple of customers returning videotapes remark that extra snippets of film footage have been added to the movies. Jeremy investigates and is thrown off kilter by what he sees. He shows the movies to his boss, who happens to recognize a house glimpsed in a snippet of footage, and she drives there to check it out.

You may think you know where this is going. You would be wrong.

This little book is exquisitely written, a meditation on many things, including loss, grief, family, small-town life, Midwest culture, and death (perhaps the "universal harvester" of the title, or does that refer to some piece of farm equipment?). It is about all the things in life that we can't really know, and as such, there are a lot of unknowns left for the reader. It is in many ways disturbing, unsettling, off kilter, but it is also meditative and mournful. A short book, it will take very little time to read, but you will be left thinking about it long after you're done. ( )
  sturlington | Apr 26, 2017 |
Mehhhh. I was so excited to read this based on reviews and advance buzz. The hook - disturbing splices of home video turning up on random VHS movies at a small town Iowa video rental store - was like catnip. I anticipated both the storyline and approach would be left of mainstream.

It's well-written and the author has an empathy, if not affinity, for those in a small town and the different (slower) pace of life in them. I felt like I was transported to small town Iowa (or midwest). Clocking in at under 300 pages, it's written efficiently, but not sparsely.

But. This is a 'high concept' book that just didn't land anywhere for me. Overall, I'm not sure what happened or or if nothing did, what I was supposed to feel or whether the author really knew either. In the end, I came away thinking this was a book that got the benefit of the doubt on 'brilliance and substance' simply because it isn't neatly categorizable and no one wants to admit they didn't get it. ( )
  angiestahl | Apr 3, 2017 |
This was excellent - not quite the horror I was expecting it to be, but a brilliant meditation on the things we do when we miss someone. And very creepy, even if not outright horror. ( )
  jen.e.moore | Mar 6, 2017 |
This book was included in Powell’s Indiespensable #61, and the description was so intriguing that I sat down and started reading it then and there.

The book primarily follows Jeremy Heldt, high school grad and video store employee in Nevada, Iowa in the mid 1990s. Life is fairly normal for Jeremy, he lives with his father, the two carrying on quietly after the death of his mother several years ago in a car crash.

The peace and quiet is slowly broken apart when a customer comes into the store, saying that her rental “has another movie on it.” When a second customer comes in complaning of te same thing, Jeremy investigates. Playing the movie through, a black and white film, barely a minute long, has been inserted into the middle of the movie. Though there’s nothing concrete in the short film, it is vaguely unsettling. When other films begin appearing in other movies at the store, the creep factor goes up exponentially. Moreover, there are familiar landmarks in the background of these strange, vaguely threatening films . . .

I really enjoyed this book. Darnielle has a writing style that manages to be descriptive and stark at the same time. In addition, the book is told from the point of view of a smugly omniscient narrator who seems to delight in keeping bits an pieces back from the reader. We are instead forced to circle around the mystery behind the tapes like a vulture, seeing only the smallest parts at a time. The whole thing reminds me of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. With that book, it was hard to pin down what exactly was so creepy, but it kept you up at night.

Fans of psychological suspense will like this book. It’s a finely creepy sophomore work from an up-and-coming author. ( )
  irregularreader | Feb 17, 2017 |
Reading Universal Harvester leaves no room for doubt that John Darnielle knows the Midwest. His lack of embellishment and overt action epitomizes the Midwest. The placid pacing of the story emphasizes the lack of urgency experienced in “flyover” country. His thoroughly unassuming and utterly forgettable main characters are good, salt-of-the-earth Midwesterners just looking to live their lives quietly, surrounded by family and community. It is as an accurate a portrait of modern-day Midwesterners as anything you will ever read.

Unfortunately, this means that for those readers who are not familiar with the slower pace of life alongside the lack of external emotion, the story is slow and uneventful. Nothing much actually happens. Jeremy does not conduct an investigation so much as assuage his fears. His main concern is for his manager of the video store and her growing withdrawal from society as well as for those appearing on the videos. Halfway through the novel, there is a shift in the narrative to a different family and a different time period. Mr. Darnielle states the connection between the past and present at the very beginning of the shift, but it still takes readers some time to understand the connection. As with Jeremy’s scenes, the past is seemingly uneventful, plodding along from day-to-day with little in the way of adventure or excitement.

Yet to dismiss this lack of action within Universal Harvester is to dismiss the heart of the novel. The Midwest is slow and quirky; it is most definitely not flashy. Midwesterners are not early adopters of technology or fashion; they typically do not seek out danger and adventure. Moreover, there is a fundamental lack of emotion that manifests itself as if people were burying their emotions. However, what Mr. Darnielle shows in the novel is that emotions may not be on the surface, but they are there and they run deep. They connect communities and are what drive the massive influx of food during times of crisis. These emotional depths are what keep people searching for lost loved ones decades after their disappearances and are what drives Jeremy to begin his research in the first place. There is such a thing as Midwestern niceness, and Universal Harvester shows exactly what that is.

In Universal Harvester, John Darnielle does not just set his novel in the heart of the country. His novel embodies the Midwestern spirit with its penchant for helping out the less fortunate. It also showcases the unassuming way in which Midwesterners face life – unflappable, hard-working, and able to accept the relentless march of time. Universal Harvester is as much an homage to Midwesterners as it is a mystery.
  jmchshannon | Feb 14, 2017 |
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But secret agents, like God, only give signs to their confidants. They are also very cruel and even unhappy at times. At any rate, they keep quiet. BENJAMIN TAMMUZ, Minotaur, translated from the Hebrew by Kim Parfitt and Mildred Budny
to Nancy Chavanothai: in loving memory
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People usually didn't say anything when they returned their tapes to the Video Hut: in a single and somewhat graceful movement, they'd approach the counter, slide the tape toward whoever was stationed behind the register, and wheel back toward the door.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374282102, Hardcover)

Life in a small town takes a dark turn when mysterious footage begins appearing on VHS cassettes at the local Video Hut

Jeremy works at the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa―a small town in the center of the state, the first “a” in Nevada pronounced “ay.” This is the late 1990s, and while 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 She’s All That, a new release, and complains that there’s something wrong with it: “There’s another movie on this tape.”

Jeremy doesn’t want to be curious. But he takes a look and, indeed, in the middle of the movie the screen blinks dark for a moment and She’s All That is replaced by a black-and-white scene, shot in a barn, with only the faint sounds of someone breathing. Four minutes later, She’s All That is back. But there is something profoundly unsettling about that scene; Jeremy’s compelled to watch it three or four times. The scenes recorded onto Targets are similar, undoubtedly created by the same hand. Creepy. And the barn looks much like a barn just outside of town.
There will be no ignoring the disturbing scenes on the videos. And all of a sudden, what had once been the placid, regular old Iowa fields and farmhouses now feels haunted and threatening, imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding. For Jeremy, and all those around him, life will never be the same . . .

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 12 Sep 2016 22:31:56 -0400)

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