Short takes: John Darnielle’s ‘Universal Harvester’ and Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘2312’

September 1, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 31, 2019

The Mountain Goats released their debut record, Sweden, in 1995, and have gone on to make 15 more albums. One of its members is a Durham resident, John Darnielle, who is described in part in his publisher’s biography as “the writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band.” His first novel, Wolf in White Van, debuted to critical praise in 2015.

Darnielle’s second book, the horror novel Universal Harvester, came out two years later. Genre fans should be aware that this is horror is literary, not lurid; the volume is far more reminiscent of the painting “American Gothic” than, say, a slasher film or the science fiction/horror movies of which I’m fond.

That 1930 work by Grant Wood may well have served as inspiration for the novel, which takes place almost entirely in small Iowa communities. Universal Harvester’s characters are as repressed as the Iowa couple — in reality, a dentist and the artist’s sister; in Wood’s depiction, a farmer and his daughter — that peers out of the canvas.

The book’s first section centers on Jeremy Held, a 20-something video-store clerk in Nevada, Iowa, in the late 1990s. (The first a in town’s name rhymes with the first letter in aviary.) A young local teacher, Stephanie, and a second customer report that strange scenes appear in their movies; when Held views the films, he finds short but bizarre clips of no identifiable provenance. He reports his findings to the store’s owner, Sarah Jane, but she soon detaches herself from the day-to-day business of running the store without shedding any light on the matter.

The trio’s separate investigations eventually lead them to an isolated farm house where some of the foreign video appears to have been recorded. It’s occupied by an older woman named Lisa, who is outwardly friendly but seems haunted by something indefinable.

Darnielle masterfully builds suspense and a sense of dread throughout his tale, which shifts in time to the 1950s and ’60s to a period about 10 years ago. The key tragedy underlying the story’s events is a mysterious disappearance that destroyed Lisa’s family during her childhood, a vanishing that neither she nor her remaining relatives are ever able to shake. This incident is all the more striking because but for a few completely innocuous actions, driven by the most innocent motivations — a mother’s fretting and kindness; a young girl’s excitement over the prospect of watching a movie — the misfortune might never have happened.

‘Universal Harvester’ by John Darnielle.

Universal Harvester is an understated work, more interested in describing the Iowa landscape and delving into the psychology and experiences of its rural Iowa characters than depicting something repulsive or dreadful. The characters frequently move right to the brink of something dramatic before the situation de-escalates. This occurs, perhaps most maddeningly, in the final chapter, as the family that now inhabits Lisa’s farmhouse attempts to decipher the strange recordings stored in the trunk of a derelict vehicle hidden in a grove on their property.

I enjoyed the book, but I expect it would appeal to a rather narrow audience.

Some weeks back, I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, a science-fiction novel set 300 years after the year it was published. Robinson, an accomplished science-fiction and horror writer, posits a future in which humanity has established outposts throughout much of the solar system; there are also plans to send a one-way expedition to a nearby star.

The book opens on Mercury, where the beloved grandmother of Swan, the main character, has just died. Because her grandmother was involved in sensitive system-wide negotiations, all of which were conducted in face-to-face conversations that were not in any way recorded, Swan is drawn into a web of intrigue over what may or may not be a diabolical plot to tip the balance of power.

Swan makes for an unlikely heroine. Petulant and impulsive, the former habitat designer betrays her principles and her colleagues at least once. But she can also be brave and generous of spirit, as we see when she protects her new friend Wahram from the sun when the two are trapped on Mercury’s hazardous surface. The aftermath of this episode, a long journey by foot through a subterranean service tunnel, is one of the most memorable parts of 2312.

‘2312,’ a 2012 novel by Kim Stanley Robinson.

One of Robinson’s objectives is to provide a tour of the solar system; I was reminded of some of the fiction of Arthur C. Clarke. Unfortunately, I too often felt like I was being subjected to a lecture as I read these passages.

Robinson employs some annoying devices; lists and fragments of expository documents are scattered among the book’s narrative chapters.

2312 has some interesting concepts, and expresses an optimistic view of our species’ potential, but I didn’t enjoy the book much, and it’s not one of Robinson’s more polished works.

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