Ah, it’s the sophomore slump.
John Darnielle – frontman of the folk rock band The Mountain Goats – made an impressive jump into fiction a few years ago with his debut novel, Wolf in White Van – a strange, foreboding little tale set in the world of mail-order pen-and-paper role-playing games.
His second novel has a compelling premise: it’s the 1990s and small town video store worker Jeremy discovers someone is splicing new footage into the store’s tapes. The scenes are disturbing but mysterious. Are they real, or some elaborate hoax? Do they show a kidnapping? Some kind of ritual? Are they building to some gruesome climax? And who is behind the camera?
It’s quite a hook, and it adds in plenty of 90s nostalgia for good measure.
But much like the previous book I reviewed, the central mystery goes nowhere. It’s unfurls gradually – too gradually perhaps, even despite the novel’s small size – but there’s no satisfying conclusion.
Which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the journey was immensely enjoyable. Sadly, Darnielle tries so hard to be experimental, to imbue the book with a sense of mystery – jumping around in time and perspective, desperately but unsuccessfully trying to surprise the reader and subvert expectations – that it becomes a frustratingly disjointed read. Every time the story starts building some momentum, Darnielle uproots us and the narrative falters.
Second books are hard: many artists describe the paralysing effect of expectation after enjoying success with a debut, be it a book, album or film. I’m sure Darnielle will be able to recapture the idiosyncratic magic of Wolf in White Van, but Universal Harvester falls well short.