A palimpsest is a piece of parchment that has been written on, scrubbed clean and written on again. Scholars of the first millennium focus on recovering the erased text, which can tell a story more interesting than the surface writing. The Palimpsest was also the name of the magazine published by the Iowa Historical Society from 1920 to 1996, after which it became Iowa Heritage Illustrated, ironically erasing a title that means to erase and overwrite.
John Darnielle’s novel Universal Harvester is also a palimpsest, focused on lives of Iowans and on retrieving the past from found fragments out of context. The novel is built out of closely observed narratives of life in Iowa that overlap, obscure and reveal each other.
John Darnielle performs with the Mountain Goats at the Englert Theatre on Monday, Sept 26, 2016. Darnielle will read from his new book Feb. 27 at Prairie Lights. — photo by Zak Neumann.
It opens with the Jeremy Heldt, a video store clerk in Nevada, Iowa, who is tipped off to the book’s central mystery by customer Stephanie Parsons when she returns a video of Targets, a 1968 Peter Bogdanovich movie. She says, with characteristic Iowa economy, “There’s something on this one.” Taking it home, Jeremy watches it and sees that she’s right; murky black and white footage has been inserted into the released movie, scenes that keep Jeremy awake at night.
From there, Universal Harvester traverses time and space to weave together the lives of strangers and acquaintances thrown together into uncomfortable intimacy. It oversimplifies to say that the people Darnielle introduces us to are lonely. Each of them are defined by the absence of someone: a mother, an ex-husband, a promising relationship that peters out. This absence is even felt by the landscape itself; “In school they taught a little about the Iowa tribes, but it was hard to get a clear picture of who exactly’d been in Story County when the settlers got there.”
The mystery of the VHS tapes is resolved, in part, in the course of the story, but the resolution is more heartbreaking than satisfying. Much is left unresolved, like the reason one of the characters is altering the pre-recorded movies. Like the fatally entertaining movie in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, they’re less the subject of the story and more the armature around which the story is wrapped.
The real focus of Universal Harvester is the connections between the people in the novel, which grow deep and abiding, even as they struggle against their midwestern reticence to reach each other. Darnielle writes about family gatherings, where “all conversations tended toward simple genealogy and geography: who was related to whom, who lived where now, where they’d lived in the first place. There was numbing comfort to it.”
A second, equally important focus is the character of the towns and landscape surrounding them: “A farmhouse has a way of feeling both timeless and impermanent without ever committing to either side. Seen from the road, buttressed by its fields, it bequeaths order to the frame: those fields, now that a farmhouse sits squarely in their midst, are there for someone.”
John Darnielle’s ‘Universal Harvester,’ released Feb. 7, 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Universal Harvester is like that farmhouse as it frames incidents in solitary lives, glancingly connected. When the first person narrator takes over the story with counterfactual digressions (“This is a mood I can imagine if all this had taken place in South Carolina, maybe: all that salty air, high humidity, the coast giving away to broken shoreline.”) it can feel like an interruption — the self-indulgent post-modern parts Jane Smiley or Marilynne Robinson would edit out. But those moments echo the disturbing interruptions into the rental video tapes; they are the narrator making himself known to the reader. “Someone working with footage from a camera mounted on her rearview, monitoring her face as she drove, might have tried, in edit, to frame the scene like that — as Sarah Jane reaching out somehow, trying to get caught.”
But the ways the book is self-consciously literary — Jeremy’s last name, Heldt, is “hero” in German; the main action takes place in “Story” County — do not take away from the affecting sadness of the human stories told. They make clear how the series of events that make up a life are stitched together into narrative in order to mean something. Darnielle’s long and celebrated career as a songwriter also shows up in how the book is made, each sentence full of rhythm and economically-evoked moodiness. “The wind comes across the plains not howling but singing. It’s the difference between this wind and its big-city cousins: the full-throated wind of the plains has leeway to seek out the hidden registers of it’s voice.”
Universal Harvester succeeds, in its meandering, low-key way, to make something luminous, arresting and mysterious out of the commonplace things that define life in rural Iowa — the disappointing Casey’s hamburgers wrapped in silver paper, the crunching under a car’s wheels of a long gravel drive, the attenuated companionship of silently sharing a movie in a darkened living room. A missed emotional connection is made more heartbreaking by how it isn’t openly discussed: “then [Stephanie] smiled the smile that few outside the region will ever master, a no-problems look that paves over rough road without making any big deal about it.”
Darnielle makes you care about the people of Universal Harvester, while leaving most of their personal mystery inside. The book’s tragedy is the unknowable-ness of other people’s whys, and its beauty is the way the wind sings around them.