John Darnielle Takes a Dive into Grief and the Glory of VHS Tapes in Universal Harvester
How do you follow up your debut novel getting nominated for a National Book Award? If you’re John Darnielle, aka lead singer of beloved indie folk band the Mountain Goats, you write a meditation about grief that also functions as a love letter to the Midwest and the lost pleasures of VHS rental stores. His latest book, Universal Harvester (out Wednesday), follows the story of Jeremy, a video store clerk in Nevada, Iowa, who starts finding video tapes that have had odd, eerie scenes spliced into them.
Darnielle says grief wasn’t necessarily his goal when he started. “I don’t sit down with a theme,” he explains. But as he explored Jeremy’s life, “it sort of opened up as I started writing.”
Jeremy is still recovering from the death of his mother in a car crash years earlier, but is deeply stoic about it. He and his father Steve live together, but almost never actually express that they’re still grieving.
“That’s Iowa—it’s not a performative place,” says Darnielle. “It’s funny, because I think in the age of YouTube now there is a sort of default that if you have strong opinions or anything, you broadcast them and share them socially.”
But for the characters of Universal Harvester, living as they do in the dark, pre-social network days of the ’90s, that’s hardly the case. “That sort of runs counter to the way people have been living for many, many years,” he says.
The past has a habit of lurking just beneath the surface for a lot of the characters in the book, a piece of inspiration Darnielle says he pulled from his memories of reading Faulkner as a teenager, and his famous line about the past not being dead, it’s not even past. That method of storytelling leaves a lot of possibilities open, namely, “that anything that happens to anybody, or anything anybody says, being the present moment of it, has the smallest part. The biggest part, the rest of the iceberg, is everything that happened before,” Darnielle says.
While the deep dive into the ’90s might seem to be of a piece with the current craze for nostalgia for the era (see Pokemon comma Go), Darnielle thinks that that might not even be the right word for it. “I am always wondering if wrangling with the past is necessarily nostalgia. I think there is something else one can be doing where you are not arguing with the past, you’re not dismissing it, but you’re also not just indulging in it. You’re just trying to take pictures of it.”
Darnielle is clearly someone who likes tangling with the complexity of his own artistic choices, which should be obvious to anyone who’s ever listened to the generally literary and sneakily profound lyrics he creates for his main gig, but even he acknowledges there’s a time and a place for something a little less serious. See, for example, his recent recording of “The Ultimate Jedi Who Wastes All the Other Jedi and Eats Their Bones.”
The song popped up on Twitter courtesy of director Rian Johnson, who helmed the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi, and who happens to be a friend of Darnielle’s. Inspired by the name of the movie, Darnielle jotted down some lyrics the afternoon he learned the title and had it recorded by that evening, complete with his son talking over parts of it. Johnson put it on Soundcloud, tweeted out the link, and then many, many thousands of people listened to it. And no, that abbreviated timeline is not an exaggeration, says Darnielle. “I wrote down the chords on a piece of paper, but if you asked me right now, I couldn’t do it for the life of me.”
Nonetheless, he admits it might have a hard time finding its way into the average Mountain Goats set list, chock full as it usually is of heavier topics. “I know that people will want to hear that song, but I can’t figure out where it would fit in the set. If you do that kind of song, which two songs about divorce and child abuse do you put it between?”
Fear not, though, if you fall into what is undoubtedly a large shared space in the Venn diagram of Mountain Goats fans who also like Star Wars. There may be a chance for the song to make it to a live show. “I do have lighter stuff,” Darnielle says. “We’ll see.”
Darnielle’s event at the Brattle Theatre is sold out, but Harvard Book Store has some advice for those determined to find a way in. 6 p.m., Wednesday, February 8, Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St., Cambridge, harvard.com.