Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Stasis Of Secrets: Matt Bell's "In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods"


Even before the publication of his debut novel, it was hard to imagine what else writer Matt Bell was capable of doing. His short stories are diverse, often complex studies of religion, history, and interactions, freely moving themselves in and out of a variety of genres. 2012's Cataclysm Baby took this even further. It's a small novella packed with creepy, post-apocalyptic and/or historical stories by twenty-six fathers beset by mutated, demonic offspring. The recent release of In The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods was preceded by a stunning array of praise, so much that anyone unfamiliar with Bell's work would likely lump it into the "over-hyped" category. Booksellers and writers took to social media after reading their advanced copies and called it the best novel of 2013. Publisher's Weekly featured the novel on a previous cover issue. And Soho Press, the publisher, took out a full-page ad in Harper's. As I wrote in my review of Cataclysm Baby, I almost wish that Bell would write a poor story or piece of fiction; as much as I support and admire him, I wouldn't be afraid to constructively criticize a piece of his that I found lacking. However, I recently finished In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, and my assessment is pretty much the same as everyone else: this is really one of the best books of 2013, and on top of that, it's one of the most original pieces of fiction in recent memory.

I say this as someone who doesn't read much fantasy/fabulist/magical realist fiction, but In The House Upon.... is a stunning, contemporary fable, and works along the same lines as shorter, classical fables: it tells so much with such basic information, and allows Bell the room to create a staggering array of possibilities. The story centers on a recently married couple: the wife is unable to birth a son (or any child), and the husband, a fisherman/hunter, grows increasingly angry and grave. The wife has magical powers through the strength of her songs, the ability to create and conjure anything except the child. There are miscarriages, false hopes, and disappointments. The husband begins to spend an increasing amount of time outside.

"My wife frowned but did not deny me, for in those days we refused each other nothing. She created and created, and when I could not abide any more of her objects--shapes meant for a once-expected childhood, now only mocking, robbed of any right utility--then I began to take more of my hours outside the house I had built, inhabiting instead the lake and the woods, whose strange failings could not be laid so squarely upon my deeds, nor the body of my wife (Bell 16-17)."

In the process, the husband becomes the host of a fingerling--a spirit/entity, representing a lost child, swimming throughout his body and speaking to him. In a sense, the fingerling represents his darker thoughts, his doubts, and the urges he seeks to repress:

"I circled round behind the house, and there I discovered the garden already unmade, its dank sod overturned, the many buried objects of baby raising now ripped anew from its earth so that they might be reinstalled in the house, each useful at last.

And then to have to look back at the house I had built, filled now with what I had not.

To have to listen to the fingerling say, I TOLD YOU SO, I TOLD YOU SO TOLD YOU SO.

To have to have him be right, and yet to not yet know what that meant (Bell 37)."

As time passes, the husband notices a large, menacing bear around the property, and the wife finally has a baby. However, the husband doesn't approve of the child and doesn't believe that it is truly his own offspring. He names the child "the foundling," and his interactions with him are either nonexistent or grim. This isn't just a case of absent or unwilling parenting--along with the voice of the fingerling, the husband finds himself in a complex, mystical game between his wife, the child, and increasingly, the bear. Bell's writing manages to go down two very different paths at once: it relies on what appears to be simplistic storytelling, the kind found in historical fables and fairy tales, but at the same time, like those tales, there is so much happening. The metaphors come slyly and forcefully. The father's narration is sometimes uncomfortable.

"For that foundling, our false son, my wife and I played at parenting together, and in those early years we learned him in the ways of our family, and also the first four of the elements, dirt and house and lake and woods: Cross-legged upon the fur-covered floor, we told him what we had been taught, that those four aspects were all we were--but then my wife said there was another, a fifth, and that this element was called mother, that it was her mothering that made the foundling, more so than any other. I thought this to be a lie but said nothing, kept silent my concern at her greedy deception--and then as I withdrew I came as well to discern elements previously unknown (Bell 41)."


The synopsis above and the cited passage could be viewed as spoilers by readers whom have read the novel. However, even while hinting at the looming outcomes, it says nothing while, in hindsight, saying much. These dynamics hold steady for several pages before stunning revelations and further plot developments arise, including a mysterious world both similar and different from the house upon the dirt to the father's communication with the bear and the ability to take other forms. Bell highlights these fantastical developments by playing with the novel's format. Some chapters are barely a page long, and others are broken up by stanzas and brief, staccato paragraphs. The mysteries and forms sometimes reminded me of a nineteenth-century novel written by experimental writer Blake Butler. I'm not alone in noting thematic similarities between Bell and other writers; Brooklyn-based writer Tobias Carroll said In The House... reminded him of Angela Carter and Cormac McCarthy. However, Bell isn't copying anyone else. It's unique writing that wonderfully evokes what has come before it.

"And in this room: The voice of the foundling as I had rarely heard it, as he talked to my wife when they were alone. A voice high and eloquent, curious and questioning, so different from the silence that blanked his wild face whenever I appeared.

And in this room: the number of times my wife hurt the foundling, even accidentally. A number so close to zero.

And in this room, the number of times the foundling touched me without fear, counted up and counted through, each enumeration instanced, made distinct. Here was the foundling, wiggling his tiny fingers in his crib.
Here him clutching my then-offered finger, here him putting that finger into his mouth, biting hard (Bell 118)."

There is really no tidy way to summarize this book, or to place it in any true time period. There are elements of history, but also no real references beside the house, the woods, or the lake, save for the mysterious place resembling them. At times, I found myself imagining the family as an isolated frontier settlement, but there are references to a watch and photographs. The novel doesn't need a definitive place or setting--again, like other fairy tales, the emphasis is on the immediate happenings, morals, and identities. Also, there are so many themes to consider that it sometimes becomes delightfully overwhelming--to name a few, Bell writes about family, marriage, parenting, masculinity, humanity's relationship to nature, and the consequences of assuming new forms and identities. The reader will also find him or herself amazed at some of the sentences. As Bell as consistently proved, his writing and imagery are beautiful and rife with layers. In this novel, there are so many unique paragraphs and sentences worth underlining and quoting. The passages I've shared in this review are for context, and I haven't even come close to highlighting my favorites:

"The days were thieves, and the happier ones the worst, their distractions allowing the hours to pass unnoticed, allowing the minutes to be snatched away without knowledge of their passing (Bell 57)."

And this passage below has been shared countless times via social media, with emphasis on its killer final line:

"That was the question I worried at, that I gnawed at like a bone, a cast-off rib too stubborn to share its marrow. And when at last that bone broke, what truth escaped its fracture, was by it remade: for even our bones had memories, and our memories bones (Bell 26)."

I very nearly didn't write this review, since so many other outlets and readers have shared much more eloquent assessments of the text. Also, having followed Bell on Twitter and Facebook, he's allowed people to share glimpses of the creative journey, from outlines to excerpts to last week's publication. But In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods truly is one of the best reading experiences I've had, and writers like Bell are showing glorious new avenues for the novel, a constantly eulogized format. If anything, I hope that someone stumbles upon this review and decides to pick up a copy. I've spent years writing about old and new literature, and this is one of the best works for someone to buy or check out on a whim and be vastly entertained by great fiction. As I mentioned in regard to Cataclysm Baby, there are so many books and writers worthy of being discovered and enjoyed by newer, bigger audiences. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is not only no exception, but a shining example of this.

Work Cited:
Bell, Matt. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. Copyright 2013 by Matt Bell.

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