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Universal Harvester by John Darnielle2 stars
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Puzzlebox stories are a particular species of weird fiction that have become all the rage in American popular culture over the years. Whether we’re looking at the films of directors like Christopher Nolan or David Lynch, or television series like Lost or The X-Files or True Detective, there’s been a successful wave of stories that hook audiences by creating elaborate internal mythologies that rely on mysteries built upon mysteries, with only tiny tidbits of revelation offered ever-so sparingly to keep butts in seats. The appeal of these stories is that they allow audiences to feel like active participants in the drama rather than just passive viewers. Give fans something that they can fill up subreddits and create entire Tumblrs dedicated to constructing their personal theories, and presto, you have an instant pop culture phenomenon. Right up until the inevitable point where you let everyone down.

And now we come to the crippling flaw of puzzlebox stories: that they require legitimate storytelling genius to pull off, and there are far more creators out there who think, or who are thought of by their fans, as geniuses than actual geniuses. As a number of critics such as Fredrik de Boer have pointed out, because these stories require increasingly complex layers of added mystery, most of them turn out to be literary Ponzi schemes writing checks they just can’t cash. They simply can’t pay off all the mysteries they’ve introduced. And so because the mysteries themselves have become the whole point, they pile on more, putting the entire story into a no-win situation where the audience has now built up — has been encouraged to build up — impossibly high expectations of final revelation that can now never be satisfied.

Any college instructor teaching a course in contemporary American lit could very easily assign John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester as an exemplar of how puzzlebox stories go wrong. Darnielle is a respected musician who fronts the alternative band The Mountain Goats, and who garnered a lot of acclaim for his first novel Wolf in White Van. His newest novel fits the puzzlebox template perfectly, and falls into every one of its narrative traps. It’s highly readable throughout, because Darnielle is indeed a gifted wordsmith, whose prose has, perhaps not surprisingly, an almost musical flow. And he’s very good at drawing keen and sympathetic insights into the character and behaviors of working class, midwestern Americans. Darnielle’s people feel real, even if the same can’t be said of the bizarre plot contrivances Darnielle forces them to play out.

It all begins when the patrons and employees of a small-town Iowa video store around the year 2000 discover that several of the movies (there are some of you who still remember VHS tapes, right?) have had strange, sinister footage spliced in. Inexplicable shots of an empty shed, a single chair, or one person talking to others offscreen. Naturally, this tantalizes us, as well as people at the store, some of whom, naturally, begin to investigate further when it becomes evident that the location where this strange footage was shot is a nearby farmhouse well known to locals.

So the immediate questions we all want resolved are: What exactly is this footage? Why was it shot? Who shot it, and who are the people in it? And what is the purpose of splicing it into random movies rented from a video store? Because we’re in a puzzlebox, all of this has to be addressed by first dipping into deep backstory, and so the novel propels us back in time to the early 1970s, where we’re given more mysteries to ponder. A creepy cult in a strip mall church, the inexplicable disappearance of a beloved and seemingly normal member of the community. Watching all of this unfold feels like filling in squares in a Bingo card.

Shall I cut to the chase and say we emerge at the end of all of this not much wiser and noticeably unenlightened? In the piecemeal manner of how puzzleboxes like to offer their reveals, we get some obvious answers right away, but nothing satisfying in terms of the deeper questions of motive and rationale. I think I know why the footage was shot, but I have no idea why the character responsible, given the reasons that Darnielle offers, thought it was a sensible means to an end. I still don’t know why clips were edited into rented movies. And I don’t have a clue what the title’s referring to unless it’s a reference to farm equipment and a farm figures in the story, even if no one actually does any farming.

Darnielle says that he’s written a story about mothers, because two key characters have lost theirs, and it would appear he’s exploring a general theme of memory and impermanence. But because there’s little internal logic to anything any of the characters in the book do, there’s little reason to connect with them, or to connect their personal destinies with one another. I know — life is weird, shit happens, and we move on. But I think a good mystery is meant to help lift us out of our day-to-day ennui and give us a sense of purpose and path to fulfillment, beyond simply telling us something we already understand and making it more baffling and senseless than it was to begin with. We’ve got enough bad TV shows doing that already.