Saturday, November 18, 2017

Temporal Things and a Creeping Sense of Dread: The Fiction of John Darnielle

Author and musician John Darnielle

Paper-based role-playing games and video rental stores in rural Iowa might seem unlikely subjects for a 21st-century novel. Both provide amusements rooted in a past that is simultaneously too recent to have yet become a part of history and too distant to be clearly remembered by just about anyone under 40. Yet the obscurity of these subjects lends them to Wolf in White Van and Universal Harvester, two novels by John Darnielle.

Darnielle is best known as the founding and primary member of the indie rock band The Mountain Goats, a group which has effectively consisted of him and a changing cast of musicians with whom he collaborates (when he doesn’t simply play solo). Darnielle’s garnered a well-deserved reputation for crafting off-kilter but deeply absorbing songs about everything from his troubled childhood to small-time professional wrestling. Those songs have gradually become more lavish in terms of their instrumentation, but Darnielle’s keen eye for characterization and narrative remains.

When his debut novel Wolf in White Van appeared in 2014, I was immensely curious to see how his keen sense of wordplay, narrative, and character would translate from songwriting to a more traditionally literary outlet. It’s an oftentimes haunting story, following Sean, its narrator, as he reflects on the fallout from two searing incidents. The first came when he tried, as a teenager, to shoot himself in the head, only to end up alive but horrifically disfigured. The second comes when the play-by-mail role-playing game that he invents, which is called Trace Italian and is set in a post-apocalyptic version of America, leads to fatal consequences when two young players try to actually follow in the real world the moves that Sean sends them.

Universal Harvester, which came out at the beginning of 2017, offers a more diffuse narrative, beginning with a discovery by Jeremy, an employee at a video store in Nevada (pronounced “ne-vay-da”), Iowa at the turn of the millennium. When customers begin complaining about seeing odd, disturbing snippets of video spliced into their rentals, Jeremy’s boss Sarah Jane goes to investigate, and eventually begins to fall off the map. Whereas Wolf in White Van focuses on a single protagonist, Universal Harvester moves the spotlight from one character to another, and across different time periods, creating something of a mosaic that eventually reveals the backstory of the character responsible for creating those strange bits of footage, as well as the reactions of the next group of people to stumble across her work, long after Jeremy’s old job at the video store has disappeared.

In both novels, Darnielle retains his talent for characterization, seemingly drawing on some of the same inspiration that led to some of his most personal and heartfelt songs, such as the autobiographical “This Year,” to create a portrait of troubled loners with unique obsessions. His sense of careful observation renders some of the more potentially precious aspects of these characters’ worlds, such as Trace Italian, into what feel like perfectly natural aspects of his fictitious worlds. Universal Harvester is especially adept at capturing the feel of small-town life without being condescending, and Jeremy’s relationship with his widowed father manages to be interesting and complex without lapsing into the usual father-son melodramatics.

At the same time, it’s striking how Darnielle’s move from music to prose alters the effect of his words. Shorn of the musical accompaniment that provides such crucial emotional coloration, as well as the rhythmic feel of the verse-chorus-verse structure of a song, those words often feel detached, distanced from the reader. Darnielle is unsurprisingly skilled at capturing the voice of a narrator like Sean in Wolf in White Van, and his use of the first-person voice in Universal Harvester is especially arresting, even unsettling, as it interjects itself at unexpected moments, catching us utterly unawares and causing us to reconsider whose perspective this story is being told from. At the same time, that surprise use of first person gets at an aspect of both books that’s especially pronounced in Universal Harvester: an obliqueness in Darnielle’s approach that’s simultaneously intriguing and alienating. Universal Harvester initially feels like an exercise in the horror genre, with its eerie happenings and ominous plot developments. However, these developments ultimately lead to a more complicated, unresolved ending, and while the motive of the person responsible for creating the videos eventually emerges, her purpose remains obscure. While that parallels the point that Darnielle seems to be making about the urges that drive us to create art, it also keeps us on the outside looking in. Even Sean, who guides us through his world through the entirety of Wolf in White Van, feels to some degree remote and unknowable.

In that regard, it seems instructive (if perhaps slightly unfair) to compare Darnielle’s work to that of George Saunders, whose Lincoln in the Bardo engages in even more pronounced experimentation. However, Saunders’s formal innovations, while sometimes intentionally disorienting, actually manage to bring us closer to his characters. Unlike the eminently singable songs for which Darnielle’s best known, his characters always keep us at a certain distance, curious but unwilling to fully commit to joining in the chorus.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscenti page and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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