Music, Movies & Moods is a regular free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet. This time, he sat down with Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle to discuss the role of pop-culture nostalgia in his latest novel, Universal Harvester.
Nearly everything about John Darnielle’s second novel initially screams nostalgia trip. The setting of small town Nevada, Iowa (pronounced Ne-vay-da), will feel familiar to readers, even those who didn’t grow up in “places most people couldn’t find on a map.” The assumed protagonist, twentysomething Jeremy Heldt, works at a mom-and-pop Video Hut right before the shift to DVD. (The review copy of the novel even came encased in a mock VHS shell, a smiley-face reminder to “Be Kind, Please Rewind” adorning the spine.) When creepy images on arbitrary tapes like Targets and She’s All That start being reported by Jeremy’s customers, the mind rewinds back to The Ring, V/H/S, and several other horror films that trade on found-footage conventions. It’s an opening act that many of us have seen countless times before, and yet Universal Harvester ends up being a novel that defies all expectations.
Nostalgia has become a dirty word in pop-culture circles. By no means does the last decade and change have a monopoly on that innate desire to reconnect to simpler times, but we have been force-fed an unprecedented amount of entertainment that seems to have little merit other than we can recall its origins from a different time in our lives. Gaze up at any Cineplex marquee and you’re bound to see at least one remake, reboot, or sequel that nobody asked for illuminated above. Look at your local concert slate and you’ll likely find acts of all stripes touring a classic or even not-so-beloved album in its entirety. And, yes, we’re complicit as consumers of pop culture, but the entertainment industry has also learned a primal fact about our hardwiring: Familiarity feels damn good. It’s partially why we sacrifice the unpredictable nature of a rock concert in favor of the banal pleasures of mentally ticking off tracks from an album we’ve heard thousands of times. It’s also why I advise young music critics to trust their guts. Once you become more familiar with an album, your opinion will skew positive, if only slightly, because the songs start fulfilling your expectations – low as they may be in some cases.
It’s why critics claim that nostalgia trades cheap – that it’s the fast food meal that tickles a thousand taste buds but leaves the gorger feeling unsatisfied a short while later. But that needn’t be the case. The ongoing Stranger Things phenomena draws audiences of all ages in through its time warp back to the ‘80s, or at least what ‘80s pop culture told us that decade was like. But if the series never got beyond foreboding synths over menacing fonts, cookie-cutter suburban neighborhoods, and the shag carpeting and wood-panel walls from our childhood living rooms, viewers wouldn’t be contemplating suspended animation rather than waiting patiently until the second season’s Halloween premiere. All those callbacks dialed up by the Duffer Brothers create a comforting nostalgic cocoon, but the first season’s real payoff comes when the beat-for-beat E.T. homage dissipates, and Stranger Things becomes a thriller about alternate dimensions, childhood bonds, and personal redemption. After a couple episodes, you’ll hardly care that you once had the same phone as Joyce Byers or that your uncle drove Hopper’s Chevy Blazer — though, that’s pretty cool.
Throughout Universal Harvester, Darnielle suggests there could be other versions of this story that would lead his characters to different ends. At the end of the novel’s first chapter, he proposes an alternate version in which video clerk Jeremy quits the Video Hut and begins a career at a soil testing lab in a nearby town. However, as Darnielle’s protagonist explains, “In this version, he keeps his job at the Video Hut, and then something else happens.” And that “something else” isn’t the small-town murder or generic horror story that readers have come to expect from movies, television, or genre fiction that begin with a creepy occurrence. While the protagonist has his or her own motivations, this device can also be interpreted as Darnielle stating that he’s going to take this common setup in a new direction – that he’ll be using the familiar to tell a truly unusual story. Like Stranger Things, the author is tapping into a new breed of nostalgia that doesn’t settle for simply being a predictable throwback to the audience’s past or previous pop-culture experiences.
Universal Harvester itself began as a creative writing exercise looking back at the seven years Darnielle lived in Iowa during his thirties. “I was picturing a place we used to rent Nintendo 64 cartridges from in Nevada,” he recalls. “One thing about men talking to each other in Iowa is they’re pretty spare. It’s not epic poetry. It’s more like nomic poetry, hermetic poetry. They had a good way of answering a really long question in two or three words. This was the essence. I wanted to write those kinds of guys.” And it’s an essence that permeates his novel, creating a remote small-town setting where everyday people map out their personal histories and endure tragedy and loss with a soft-spoken, laconic dignity. The questions that do arise when neighbors or outsiders rub away at the surface get answered in dribs and drabs, not unlike the conversations that open Darnielle’s novel. But capturing the region and time authentically — even borrowing first and last names from actual Iowans he knew — isn’t the only way that the author creates a believable world in which his readers can immerse themselves.
“Who didn’t rent tons and tons of video tapes in the ’90s?” Darnielle asks. “I’m pretty firmly rooted in the physical world, and the artifacts of pop culture have a talismanic value. If I think about a video tape, I get a vibe from it, a mood.” It’s a personal observation that suggests a deeper understanding of how pop-culture nostalgia can function in storytelling. It’s why the name Video Hut, images of clunky black VHS cases, and random titles like Reindeer Games and even Best of Bass Fishing Volume Four conjure up not only a time and place but a distinct feeling for readers. Darnielle’s belief that people have physical and emotional connections to “stuff” not only allows him to create believable characters but also to tap into the powerful connection his own readers have with pieces of pop culture. In Wolf in White Van, Darnielle’s National Book Award-nominated debut novel, he uses the framework of a mail-in, choose-your-adventure game to tell the story of a young man, Sean, whose vivid imagination leads him towards both personal destruction (a shotgun blast to the head) and eventually an escape from his youthful darkness. But for all the time we spend absorbing Sean’s actual thoughts, it might be the intricacies of the apocalyptic game he invented, his Conan the Barbarian-themed childhood play sessions, or his taste in cheap gore movies that truly put us in that character’s headspace. We understand something about him — just as we often make sense of our own worlds — through the pop culture prominent in his life.
So, what can we understand from Jeremy’s humdrum life of jockeying a register at a fading video rental business where strange snippets of footage are appearing on tapes? “People who lose things they can’t get back is a big theme for me,” says Darnielle. “And the losses we experience in pop culture, say aging technologies, are fertile and easy to understand. They can act as metaphors for the more complex types of loss that people endure.” And that’s the story Universal Harvester ends up telling: a funneling account of profound loss and grief and how it touches both the afflicted and those around them. The mystery tapes don’t come to represent the late-night video runs and guilty-pleasure horror movies of our youth but actual people — some lost, some not — and the importance of keeping their memories alive, if only for our own sake.
“You have to always continue to surprise yourself,” Darnielle tells me near the end of our conversation. He’s referring to how he could’ve never predicted that sketching dialogue between two Iowans in a video store would turn into the heartbreaking tale at the core of Universal Harvester. It’s a thought that runs counter to the general idea of pop-culture nostalgia; we usually turn back not to be surprised or challenged but to find predictability and comfort, a distant cry from our current lives, which often seem increasingly out of our control. But whether it be the Duffer Brothers storyboarding out the further adventures of our pint-size heroes or Darnielle stumbling upon something deeper while letting his mind drift back to an earlier time in his life, the richest harvests seem to arrive when we’re not quite sure what’s around that next corner. “I do have to leave room to surprise myself, or I won’t be that interested,” Darnielle reiterates. “The process of discovery makes for really exciting moments. I think you can feel it in the narrative.”