August 29, 2013
In Matt Bell’s debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (Soho Press), we are lured into familiar territory—the world of fables and tall tales, where our expectations of the surreal, the grotesque, and the magical are fulfilled in ever-expanding layers. But beyond the illusions, beyond the world building, darkness, and the unknown is an allegory—a harsh yet beautiful lesson on what it means to be a man, a father, and a husband; to be a woman, a mother, and a wife. Told in layers, fractured into sections, unfolding in a grand tapestry that weaves emotions and actions into a complex series of destinies and consequences, this novel is not an easy read. But the reward is dense prose, powerful psychoanalysis, and the unsettling feeling that our own actions today—many miles from the woods with its failing bear, and its lake with its undulating squid—might be bound by similar rules and outcomes.
Our story begins in a land where a man and wife have left behind the busy city and the noise of commerce for the peace, beauty, and solitude of a distant body of water, a forest filled with life, and a simple plot of land upon which to build their humble home. But as the sentences unfold, the language teases anxiety out of every split log and trapped animal, every shadow and echo and bird call. Reality is not the same here—songs bring life to the quiet land and put moons in the sky—building, destroying, and transforming:
Things were odder here than they were elsewhere, and most stories were not written as clearly: On the other side of the lake, across the mountains, the truth had been inscribed in the stars, and could not be changed. Here, upon the dirt, my wife had wiped clean that sky-flung slate, and so I was not sure what to believe, or where to look to rediscover what once I had simply known.
To have one’s faith in reality, in God, in self, shaken like this is to let in an endless array of possibilities—both good, and bad. They come to this land to have a child, but are instead granted one miscarriage after another —the process, the death, the blood and anguish grinding them down into a paste of crushed expectations.
Where a lesser author may have shied away from the reality of these losses, here the gore and brutal truth remain on the page, lyrical in their violence, horrible in their honesty:
What sad and sorry shape was born from her after those next days, that labor made long despite the lack of life within:
Not an arm, but an arm bud. Not a leg, but a leg bud, a proto-knee.
Not a heart but a heart bulge.
Not an eye but an eye spot, half-covered by a translucent lid, uselessly clear.
Not a baby, instead only this miscarriage, this finger’s length of intended and aborted future.
And what was not born: No proper umbilical cord, snaked from mother to baby, from placenta to belly, and so the starved child passed from my wife’s body into a clot of blood and bed sheet, and then into my waiting hand, where I lifted it before my eyes to look upon its wronged shape, that first terminus of my want.
Then to my lips, as if for a single kiss, hello and goodbye.
Then no kiss at all, but something else, some compulsion that even I knew was wrong but could not help, so strong was my sadness, so sudden my desire: into my body I partook what my wife’s had rejected, and while she buried her face in the red ruin of our blankets I swallowed it whole—its ghost and its flesh small enough to have in my fist like an extra finger, to fit into my mouth like an extra tongue, to slide further in without the use of teeth—and I imagined that perhaps I would succeed where she had failed, that my want for family could again give our child some home, some better body within which to grow.
The shock of this scene, the horror, the love—it is unbearable. And yet, we bear it. This is a dark moment, a secret we will share with this man, the entire act, the bloodshed, the loss merely a parade of black—one layer of darkness after another.
The world around the characters changes, these failed births pushing them apart, the husband left to hunt and gather, the wife to sing her songs into the air, making and unmaking, losing herself in the process. They should stop. They must stop—this is not their fate. Every animal caught and buried, comes back to life, altered and bent, never whole again—“a mink without its fur, or else this beaver without the squared hatchet of its teeth, gnawing useless at a trunk it had no chance of opening.” Whatever he touches, it is tainted, a great sadness washing over their world, the light slipping away with every selfish act. Rooms appear, stairs descend, objects and creatures and moments are conjured, are trapped, existing in ways that they never should. It is not right. And the bear watches, the squid waits, and the house upon the dirt squats in exhaustion, waiting to expand.
Eventually the child inside the man will be known to us as the fingerling, and the wife will leave, she will disappear, and return with a son that is known as the foundling—secrets and lies their blankets and pillows, a sour taste left in bitter mouths. Even though nothing is right, they continue. The man acts as a man feels he should, doing what he can—hunting, fishing, building—anything to have a fixed goal, to act, instead of comprehending his actions, her actions, and the possible consequences. The foundling lives in the shadow of his mother, and the father is left out in the cold—unable to reveal his secret minnow, the fingerling that lives within him, unable to bond with his boy, the flesh that is not quite right. What frustration:
Soon the foundling bawled every dusk when I approached the house, even when I came empty-handed: for while it was his mother who cooked for him, he saw only that it was I who fished and trapped, skinned and slaughtered and butchered, and even though he had no trouble sharing in the meals we made it became my wife he thanked, and me he feared.
What to do? The sustenance met with pale, empty faces—the lack of gratitude setting fire to a slow boil that will eventually bubble over.
But scattered between these dark moments, are stories, rooms, and images of their love, is proof that what they have is good, is supposed to be alive, meant to survive the horrors and desperate acts. What he will later call the deep house, a plenitude of rooms filled with one captured moment after another:
And in this room: The times my wife touched me while I was asleep, happening here in sequence but cut away from their context, their chronology recognizable only by the changes in my body, in hers. How long she persisted. How I thought throughout that we were already estranged, that in out silences we were to come undone, unravel from our bonds. And yet in this room she ran her hands beneath the sheets, across the width of my widening back, traced her fingers through the salts of the day’s working, then wrapped her arm around the slumbering bulk of my belly, that round shape girthed heavier than that she had first married, that she then still loved.
You can feel a heavy sigh wash over the pages of the book, these moments that were missed, these quiet blessings that went unnoticed.
The novel expands in many different directions—the bear has her own story, and becomes an accomplice, as well as a continued enemy, her loyalties in a constant state of flux; the fingerling exists inside the husband, jealous of the foundling, making his needs known, giving, and then taking away, healing and hurting in equal measure; the wife leaves, and eventually, is found, all the while our protagonist striving to understand why, to ask the darkness why, to never grasp what brought this circle of hell to his doorstep.
It isn’t until the final pages, the acts continuing when it certainly must end, that our hero, our villain, finally understands that “no longer did I need to know all the seats of power,” that his surrender, his lack of self, would lead him to the place he had been striving to find all along—and all he had to do was let himself be saved.
You can certainly compare this dense, powerful, and heartbreaking novel to other fabulists, such as Kafka, Calvino, and Borges, but Matt Bell’s writing also owes a debt of gratitude to Cormac McCarthy, Kelly Link, Benjamin Percy, and Aimee Bender. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods can only really be compared and assigned to one voice—Matt Bell’s—which is unique, innovative, captivating, and hypnotic in a way that only he can make it. This is a book that will be talked about, dissected, and shared for years to come because it is not only his story, it is our story—every single one of us.