If there was any doubt we live in a state of nostalgia, just look at Donald Trump’s slogan: “Make America Great Again.” In its simplistic tones, Trump’s promise to America was to turn back the clocks and return to a time when the American worker was valued over the call to profits, a time when a family could comfortably survive on a single paycheck instead of working three jobs to support their living costs, and a time when wealthy were only a small magnitude richer than the poor. The allure of “Make America Great Again” is a nostalgic memory of an America whose idealistic times also included a pecking order and when people knew their place.
Nostalgia is strong force that promises the ability to heal, but can also destroy in the process. In a way, nostalgia can act as a force of grief. When we gather family for funerals and wakes, we reminisce and remember the deceased almost as a form of group therapy. We tell tales of our experience with the deceased and commiserate with friends and loved ones who are going to feel the loss through the person’s absence. If we were truly close to the deceased, memories of that person will interrupt even the most mindless of tasks. Listening to the radio might cue a memory of some sing along, a word inflection might sound like a personal quirk, and the grieving process continues.
John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester weaponizes nostalgia as an attempt to understand missing spaces. Set in rural Iowa at the turn of the millennium, 22-year-old Jeremy works as a clerk in a mom-and-pop video store that still hasn’t begun to make the transition to DVD. He and his father have been in a holding pattern since his mother unexpectedly died in a horrific car accident six years ago. Then, weird and creepy videos start cutting into the tapes at the store. A tape of She’s All That spontaneously includes a home video with a woman in a barn with a bag on her head. A tape of Targets includes a video of a lady running down a driveway and falling. Videos beget videos, and store owner Sarah Jane loses herself in uncovering the mystery.
Each of Universal Harvester‘s four sections work together to bring clarity to a temporal map of cause and effect, loss and grief, and the imprints that we make on each other. No matter how small, we all leave an impression on somebody else. Whether its as small a kindness as picking up somebody’s tab or as devastating as abandonment, when we leave there’s always a ghost left behind. People work in industries soon to be strained by technological developments. The video store will go out of business in the face of Netflix and Hulu. A carpentry supply company will lose business to the onslaught of big box Home Depots. Everything is temporary and will haunt their area for the next however long. In my neighborhood, we still have a big neon Hollywood Video sign years after the video store has left the building, reminding us of what we used to have.
As haunting and effective as John Darnielle’s writing is, Universal Harvester just doesn’t feel as intentional as it should. Scenes drop in and out, actions and thoughts are left unfinished, questions go unanswered, and the unreliable narrator spends much of the first section of the book talking about the different paths the story could have taken. Running a brief 214 pages in a tiny hardback, Universal Harvester feels like a novella wanting to grow up to be a real novel someday.
Published in 2000, Mark Z. Danielewski’s landmark debut novel House of Leaves hangs over Universal Harvester like the ghost of a video store sign in a downtown setting. With a vaguely fractured but vaguely linear storyline, House of Leaves also uses physical spaces, death, and cinema to explore loss, grief and obsession. Like Harvester, Leaves uses multiple time periods and shifting protagonists to disorient the reader, deconstructing the manifestation of an abstract emotion. And yet, Harvester manages to add a wider context to the subject, expanding loss and memory into the real world that threatens to understand the profound sense of loss that caused the voter dependency of Make America Great Again.
By the end of the novel, alongside grief, Darnielle addresses modern day symptoms of our divided society. Briefly hitting on topics from religious cults to ghost storefronts, from gentrification to the death of industry, Universal Harvester is almost a call out to understand the grieving process of middle America who have seen a measurable change over the past 45 years, and not all for the better. And yet, these themes seem to have been left on the table for the reader to decipher. Darnielle isn’t one for post-modern wankery, nor even one to tie up all the loose ends of the narrative. Anybody looking for a complete narrative would do well to look elsewhere. Those on its wavelengths will find much to enjoy, but I just wish there were more to it.