On ‘Universal Harvester’

I pictured the video store as the Video Zone around the corner from my old house. Not the house where I grew up, but the one I lived in when I first moved out of home. The house was a terracotta terrace in a twee inner-city suburb, where my parents were paying for my rent. Still, it felt grown up to set up an account at the video store, with the intention of responsibly borrowing and returning something by myself, for myself. This was in 2012, almost a decade after the video store had begun its slow shuffle towards extinction. There were a few still standing though, mostly stores banking on their novel status as the last of a dying breed, renting mostly cult classics to film students and Fitzroy rock dogs wallowing in nostalgia. Video Zone wasn’t like that. They had a horror section in the back with some old halloween decorations suspended from the ceiling, but for the most part they just rented blockbusters. It was as if no one had told them time was about to out pace them.

I pictured Video Zone as I was reading Universal Harvester, because the story begins in a video store. But the Video Hut of John Darnielle’s narrative is not Video Zone. For one thing, it’s in Iowa. For another it’s the late 1990’s, not 2012 so the video part of the title is in reference to actual VHS tapes. People keep returning the tapes to Jeremy, the clerk at Video Hut, saying there’s something on them that maybe shouldn’t be. Jeremy tries to take things at face value. It’s how he’s been brought up. It’s a position that has served him well. It means he doesn’t have to dig too deeply into the trauma that him and his father have been holding at bay since the death of Jeremy’s mother. But then there’s the tapes. It seems like someone is intent on broadcasting an anonymous trauma out into the world, hidden in the crossfire of B-Grade thrillers. It seems like Jeremy might have to do something about it.

Darnielle has a unique mastery over the art of articulating everyday angst. His protagonists, in his books and in much of his discography as ‘The Mountain Goats,’ are not so much anti-heroes as utter nobodies. They don’t act heroically, though sometimes they imagine scenarios in which they might. Their heroes are metal musicians, wrestlers, outsiders who express an exaggerated form of the simmering frustration they feel in their otherwise ordinary lives. In ‘Universal Harvester’ the threat of there being something concealed within these lives looms constantly. Darnielle draws the sinister out of the everyday as shadows cast long across the small-town side walks and highways and fields. But the true power, and terror, of the work lies in the fact that the characters’ realities are so much plainer, more unassuming, hard to pick out in a crowd, but very much alive and maybe quietly, intently working through some darker things.

‘Universal Harvester’ is in this way a very specific portrait of place, of the people that live and work and die in the kind of towns you might just drive right through without a second thought. But it is also a sprawling encapsulation of our relationship to time and space; to change and how we track, or lose track of each other, or of other people, as unremarkable lives intersect and diverge and continue on and on.

The first time I went in to Video Zone, the clerk asked what I’d like my account password to be. I had already thought this through. I was going to say ‘Rosebud,’ like the line from Citizen Kane, like the town where I was born. But my boyfriend chimed in with “penguin” before I could say anything and so that was that and we used the account maybe a dozen times before we moved and eventually the store closed down. I pictured that store when I was reading ‘Universal Harvester,’ because like Video Hut, that place seemed to be located on the precipice of some things that I maybe hadn’t quite grasped at the time. Things like how loss can be gradual. Like how maybe we never actually lose anything, how maybe the things we thought were gone can show up or be made manifest in different forms, other places. How there are whole worlds turning on their axis, peripherally aware that change is going to sweep up them and their returns box and their overdue fees and put them down in the past where maybe their memory will be stumbled upon by accident, or by someone who knows what they’re looking for. Maybe that person will follow the scent until the trail goes cold and then they’ll fill in the gaps with their own memories of people and places wholly dissimilar to the ones they were searching for. And maybe someone else will come across this amalgam of human experience and continue the process, all the while teetering, knowingly or unknowingly, on the cusp of forgetting or being forgotten.