not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
The following post is taken from my Goodreads review:
Once again I’m finding myself with divided feelings on a John Darnielle novel, mostly for the same reasons as last time. On one hand, the actual prose is some of the best sentence-by-sentence stuff I’ve ever read. Darnielle has a gift for sentences that frame a relationship or identify an emotion that you immediately recognize without having ever thought of it that way before.
On a level of basic plot–the connective tissue of events and motivations and a desire to know what’s next that drive most fiction–it’s a lot less satisfying. Some interesting events begin the novel, but they don’t really create much forward momentum. Novels that are propulsive generally have you ask “what’s next?” and then answer it in a way that creates a new situation that makes you ask “what’s next?” With this novel, you’re basically asking “what’s next?” about a single situation for the whole novel. It drags a little.
But between this and Wolf in White Van, I’m beginning to see some consistencies in Darnielle’s work that I didn’t before, some things he seems to keep returning to, in his books and even some songs. The most obvious one is the desire to know more about a particular situation. If you’ve ever opened a book and found a card with a mysterious phone number in it, or gone to your new job and heard a mysterious, vaguely-threatening voicemail addressed to the previous owner of your office phone, and been seized with a curiosity to know more about the situation, then you know what I’m talking about. Darnielle’s characters come into closer contact than most with these private little snippets of hidden lives, and the need to learn more, to return to these details even when we know we don’t have enough information to figure them out entirely, is a big part of their journey.
The other motif, or obsession, or whatever you want to call this recurring focus in Darnielle’s novels, is the exploration of the creative impulse, particularly as a response to trauma or loss. Both books have creative characters whose major creative achievement is in some ways a dark reflection of their past traumas, but which never quite lines up with them, either: there’s always some act of transformation, so the final product is never a retelling of the past trauma so much as it is a fundamental reshaping of it. It’s like nuclear fusion: most of the subatomic particles are still there, but some have been thrown off as energy, and they’re all in different configurations now.
These two impulses seem to work off each other in Universal Harvester, the inscrutability of the creative act attracting and engaging the obsession to know, possibly to the detriment of the people who need to know. If you’re someone who needs to know, who likes to put the world in order, trace the hidden underlying ideologies and systems that inform the art you consume, then Universal Harvester might inspire a similar excavatory impulse in you…or maybe it’ll just bounce off you, who knows.