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John Darnielle Brilliant at Brattle Theater

John Darnielle
Author John Darnielle speaks at an event hosted by the Harvard Book Store. This event took place Wednesday evening.
John Darnielle has presence. In pictures, he appears nebbish, his hair youthfully shaggy and his glasses askew. One assumes that the genius behind the band The Mountain Goats—adored with cultish fervor—and the 2014 book “Wolf in White Van” must possess all the stereotypical qualities of an introverted, reluctant genius: powerful, though nervous, self-effacing, and solipsistic. Yet onstage at the sold-out Brattle Theater, promoting his recently released sophomore novel, “Universal Harvester,” Darnielle was comfortable and charismatic, as genial as your Midwestern uncle and as thrillingly erudite as your favorite professor. He first addressed his audience with an extended riff on deep vein thrombosis, and when a ringing phone disrupted him, he archly admonished the audience member at fault: “You silence that phone or I’m coming down there. Did you think that rule didn’t apply to you? I silenced my phone.”

A reedy tenor on record, Darnielle is a resonant baritone in person, and even then, his style of speech depends on the activity he is engaged in. As he stood at the podium, reading a passage from “Universal Harvester,” his voice was soothing and deliberate, a pitch-perfect approximation of an audiobook reader’s. Darnielle’s prose is not flashy, yet it is deeply rhythmic: one automatically understands that he has spent the last quarter of a century fitting lyrics to meters. His sentences expand and contract like breathing creatures, and they brim with evocative details, the kind that made his albums—“All Hail West Texas,” “Tallahassee,” “The Sunset Tree”—the classics they are.

Darnielle said that “Universal Harvester” began to take shape after he thought through one simple question: When Iowans have family reunions, why do all the conversations focus on where people wound up, instead of how people are doing? As for the title “Universal Harvester,” Darnielle explained that it was the name of a company which sounded heavy metal to him as a teenager (“It’s like the cold hand of death, man!”) He even named his pet Egyptian spiny mouse “Universal Harvester.”

In conversation, Darnielle discards the gravitas and becomes a motormouth, holding forth on his preferred topics with humor, enthusiasm, and clarity. His interests are impossibly diverse. In his dialogue with author and host Kelly Luce, he managed to touch on Theodore Roethke, Anton Bruckner, John Cage, and Parliament. When asked about the elements of horror in “Universal Harvester,” Darnielle discussed his fascination with such movies as “Bride of Frankenstein” (which, he theorized, is a Greek tragedy), “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” the controversial 1984 slasher film. “It’s horrible in every aspect,” he said of the film. “I’ve seen it four or five times.”

While such a conversation might seem hopelessly diffuse, Luce guided Darnielle with rich questions and witty comments into divulging useful insights into his craft. Bringing up Truman Capote’s dismissal of Jack Kerouac’s work (“That’s not writing; that’s just typing”), Darnielle refuted it with a shrug, a grin, and three words: “Well, typing’s good!” he said. “Writing is first labor, then inspiration.” In other words, he explained that he types and types without an explicit purpose, then prints out his work and reads it aloud while pacing.

When Luce wondered if art and fiction function differently post-election, if such powerful tools for connection and empathy ought to be employed towards political ends, Darnielle said that becoming a political writer requires discipline and that one could not simply wake up as one. Citing the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, he said, “the scales fell from my eyes,” insisting that one could not remain unmoved by society’s struggles. He advised first listening and absorbing if one is not personally familiar with such a topic, instead of tackling it uninformed.

Darnielle’s responses to questions from the audience were equally illuminating. When asked how he decided the placement of cathartic moments, which appear often in his work, Darnielle replied that he never goes looking for them. “Catharsis comes from caring about your characters and believing them as people,” he said. When asked about the moment he knew he had a talent for words, Darnielle confessed that he still does not know, but said that he began to take himself seriously once he recognized the masters—“Willa Cather, Joan Didion”—and discovered humility at their feet. He recommended against writing to gratify your ego. “It’s not a good reason to write, to show people that burning itch you have to write. It’s a very dude reason[.]... Stop trying to impress yourself,” he said. In response to a comment about his focus on adolescence, Darnielle said that he wants to forgive his younger self, and that he wants to explore the gap between the kid who makes mistakes and the adult who knows well enough not to make them. “Once you have that knowledge,” he said, “you can’t imagine yourself not having it.” Darnielle says that his writing then becomes a form of self-reflection. “It’s a process of self-improvement,” he concluded.


—Staff writer Jonathan P. Trang can be reached at jonathan.trang@thecrimson.com.

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