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Universal Harvester: A Novel Hardcover – February 7, 2017
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An Amazon Best Book of February 2017: In Nevada, Iowa, in the late 90s, someone is splicing creepy home footage into the videocassettes rented from the Video Hut. You might be enjoying a Boris Karloff classic with some popcorn when the narrative is disconcertingly interrupted by a few moments of someone breathing heavily in the dark, or maybe something more sinister waits for viewers of She’s All That. And despite obvious reservations, Jeremy, treading water as a clerk following his mother’s sudden death years earlier, can’t stop watching. A few of the clips seem to betray local landmarks, and what self-respecting meddling kid could resist checking it out? This may sound like the set-up for a good thriller, but Universal Harvester is much stranger than that. Darnielle – whose unorthodox debut novel, Wolf in White Van, was nominated for the National Book Award – has written an understated slow burn of a book, lean on plot but dense in mood and dread. Darnielle is more interested in what ferments in the dark corners of our universal experiences – how we cope with loss and absence and the ways that they bend us, the peculiar ways we become bent. In fact, if ambiguity isn’t your thing, you might look elsewhere. People might be filming unnerving things in dilapidated, farm country outbuildings, but the pat, Psycho-style explanation is not forthcoming. Universal Harvester is like a David Lynch adaptation of a Marilynne Robinson novel, where manicured grass is replaced by fields of corn, but the bugs squirming beneath are the same. --Jon Foro, The Amazon Book Review
"Brilliant…Darnielle is a master at building suspense, and his writing is propulsive and urgent; it's nearly impossible to stop reading. . . [Universal Harvester is] beyond worthwhile; it's a major work by an author who is quickly becoming one of the brightest stars in American fiction."
―Michael Schaub, Los Angeles Times
“Grows in menace as the pages stack up . . . [But] more sensitive than one would expect from a more traditional tale of dread.”
―Joe Hill, New York Times Book Review
“The most unsettling book I’ve read since House of Leaves.”
―Adam Morgan, Electric Literature
"This chilling literary thriller follows a video store clerk as he deciphers a macabre mystery through clues scattered among the tapes his customers rent. A page-tuning homage to In Cold Blood and The Ring."
―O: The Oprah Magazine
“A stellar encore after the success of [Darnielle's] debut novel, Wolf in White Van . . . Beneath the eerie gauze of this book, I felt an undercurrent of humanity and hope.”
―Manuel Roig-Franzia, The Washington Post
“[Universal Harvester is] so wonderfully strange, almost Lynchian in its juxtaposition of the banal and the creepy, that my urge to know what the hell was going on caused me to go full throttle . . . [But] Darnielle hides so much beautiful commentary in the book’s quieter moments that you would be remiss not to slow down.”
―Abram Scharf, MTV News
"Few books in recent memory have mastered the Midwestern uncanny as well as John Darnielle’s strange and lyrical Universal Harvester...Like Midwestern cornfields, this book haunts in many ways."
―Chicago Review of Books
“Universal Harvester is a novel about noticing hidden things, particularly the hurt and desperation that people bear under their exterior of polite reserve . . . Mr. Darnielle possesses the clairvoyant’s gift for looking beneath the surface.”
―Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
“[Universal Harvester is] constantly unnerving, wrapped in a depressed dread that haunts every passage. But it all pays off with surprising emotionality.”
―Kevin Nguyen, GQ.com
"Truly excellent...In an age of puffed up literary doorstops, it feels vaguely miraculous that Darnielle manages to pack this haunting novel...into less than 300 pages."
―Joe Gross, Austin American-Statesman
“Darnielle writes beautifully . . . He builds a deep sense of foreboding by giving pieces of the puzzle in such a way that you really can’t see the solution until that final piece is in place.”
―Salem Macknee, News & Observer
"Eerie . . . unnerving . . . Darnielle adeptly juggles multiple stories that collide with chaotic consequences somewhere in the middle of nowhere. With a nod to urban legends and friend-of-a-friend tales, the author prepares readers for the surreal truth, the improbable events that 'have form, and shape, and weight, and meaning" ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Darnielle’s masterfully disturbing follow-up to the National Book Award-nominated Wolf in White Van reads like several Twilight Zone scripts cut together by a poet . . . All the while, [Darnielle’s] grasp of the Iowan composure-above-all mindset instills the book with agonizing heartbreak.” ―Daniel Kraus, Booklist (starred review)
“Darnielle’s second novel opens like a dark suspense story . . . but he ultimately pursues a softer and more nuanced exploration of family and loss . . . Darnielle’s prose is consistently graceful and empathetic . . . [Universal Harvester is] a smart and rangy yarn.” ―Kirkus Reviews
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The book flipped through multiple story libes, never differentiating which was which, seemed scattered and disorganized. Happy to be done with it. Disappointed as the story line sounded interesting. Still have no idea what I read.
I feel like International Harvester is what happens if you take out everything EXCEPT for the stuff that normally gets skipped over by time-lapses and scene transitions: driving, eating, small talk, trying to fall asleep, standing around at work. There's almost no dialogue dedicated to advancing the story--only discussions of people's dates and new jobs. Even the characterization is damaged by how it skips and fast-forwards. As soon as any action rears its head, the narrative skips to the aftermath.
The beginning act of the book sets up a compelling, terrifying premise when video rental customers start showing up with complaints of weird footage spliced into their movies, and progresses to the store manager going gumshoe to figure out what's going on. And then all of a sudden, it completely drops the plot and launches into a detailed life story of a background character we've only seen a couple of times. When it comes back to the present-day, the store manager has moved in with the antagonist(?), but there's no explanation as to why. And when we finally see our main(?) protagonist(?) run afoul of the assumed antagonist of the story, it jumps clear over the confrontation, years into the future, to see the fallout from their encounter through the eyes of a THIRD cluster of characters. And even that is robbed from us when the third group chickens out of confronting the antagonist. In the end, all we got was half a biography and a bunch of people literally standing around talking about the weather. It even skips a car crash in which a character almost dies, and skips the scene where the protagonist finds him and calls 911.
Who edited this? Why did you take out all the good parts? Literally everything worth reading happens "off-screen." How do you ruin a premise like a video rental in the middle of nowhere finding pieces of murder and torture footage grafted into its tape cassettes? I feel like I bought a beautiful birthday cake that was nothing but a balloon covered in frosting, and when I cut into it, I skipped the pop and cut straight to me putting on my pajamas and going to bed.