In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods
(Soho Press, 2013)
In his most recent novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, Matt Bell proves himself to be not only a gifted novelist, but a talented lyricist and mythmaker as well. The title of Bell’s novel is like the song whose name, without the liner notes having been read, is already known to its listeners. It is known because it has been taken directly from the heart of the song itself—its words are the words that make up the refrain that is sung again and again. And, much like a song whose title hints at its own thematic and emotional content, Bell’s latest work operates within a similar musicality and structure.
The novel is set in a fantastic and mythical world, set apart from the rest of civilization. An unnamed narrator and his wife, also unnamed, occupy this strange and alternate world. Newly married, they claim the titular dirt, located between the lake and the woods, as the place where they will begin their life together, creating a world that belongs only to them and the child they plan to have. Self-sufficient and insulated from the outside world, the man hunts the creatures of the forest and the fish of the lake while his wife has the ability to sing things—a baby crib or an extra moon, for instance—into existence. But a series of strange and difficult miscarriages divides the couple, pitting them against one another in the once-beautiful world they had created, now turned nightmare. Also living in the woods is a magical bear intent on revenge and, in the lake, a ghost-like squid with secrets of its own.
The novel does not operate only on the level of fantasy, however. It delves deeper, into the stuff of myth and marriage. The world created by these archetypal characters—archetypal man of hunting and gathering and archetypal woman of song and compassion—is full of symbols, or what the narrator refers to as “elements,” and these symbols interact with each other in dynamic ways, both on the page and off. Despite how strange and original the novel’s content is, it conjures up certain meta-narratives which may resonate with readers. In the following passage, one detects a weird mash-up of the story of creation and Adam and Eve in Genesis:
She said, 'Together we will remake this dirt, the sky above it and the ground below, and all the animals and birds and fish that crawl and fly and swim upon and around it, and by our own new laws we will be better married, made anew.'
Beneath the mythmaking and fabulism, the book is a beautiful and harrowing meditation on married life. It also addresses issues tangential to its primary subject matter like family, masculinity, and femininity. Despite some of the very strange and magical elements within the plot itself, Bell does a good job communicating the thematic content of the novel without being heavy-handed. Here the narrator reflects on his relationship, struggling to come to terms with the mutable nature of one’s identity in a marriage:
Away from my stories, she had become herself again, who she had arced toward whenever I was not there to tell her who I wanted her to be; and I in her absence I had also moved toward this limited man I was now, this best man I could be.
In terms of writing, the prose is simultaneously lofty, tight, and controlled. Bell commits to the language of myth and parable with writing that feels antiquated, yet modern; authentic, but refined. In the following passage, Bell invokes the language of nuptials:
On the day of our wedding, on some now-distant beach, my wife had sworn herself to me with ease and in faith, and I did likewise for her: Together we made the longest promises, vowed them tight, and it was so easy to do this then, to speak the provided words, when we did not know what other harder choices would necessarily follow as we made our first life together in a new city...
Bell is like a gifted technician, and he often huddles words together in unexpected and gorgeous combinations: “My flesh, marked with a topography of anger.”
It’s not inconceivable that the novel’s language could come off as stilted, tiresome or overwrought for some readers. The writing is heavily stylized and, if the prose doesn’t appeal to the reader’s sensibility, they will find themselves wading through 300 pages without much reprieve from a very consistent and specific voice. Apart from the prose, however, the most impressive part of Bell’s project is his ability to tell a story and cultivate serious feeling. This novel is tremendously sad and heartbreaking, and though Bell gives the readers enough to hope for, it becomes apparent that the marriage between the two characters will not be an easy one, and this is symbolized by images of fire, burning, torn flesh, broken bones, signs of aging, lost teeth, and other physical and unsettling maladies. Despite positioning itself as a work of fabulism, Bell’s novel transcends the genre and is acute in its understanding of the difficulty, and also the beauty, of a commitment to the notions of always and forever.
When the novel is finished, there is plenty of work leftover for the reader to do, should they wish to do so. There are symbols to be unlocked and signs to be decoded. The novel could seem turgid at times, but it’s only in a full reading that the scope of the entire project emerges, a rich and highly emotive fabric woven from myth, allegory, and symbolism. Bell’s House Upon the Dirt is the type of novel that seems not only to invite a re-reading, but to encourage it as well. The book revels in its imaginative powers, and demonstrates that not only have the characters in Bell’s novel succeeded in fashioning a new universe from our everyday world, but Bell, as a novelist has too.