Matt Bell’s latest offering, published by Soho Press, is his most ambitious to date. In many ways it represents his continued growth as a writer. Moving from the shorter forms (short story collection, chapbooks, and novellas) of his past Bell has put together a novel-length work that may very well be his best writing yet. By expanding his narrative into a longer form he’s able to create fully realized characters and more mature plot lines that have the feel of a 15 round heavyweight fight rather than the first round knockouts of some of his earlier, shorter works.
Split into small chapters, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, is cobbled together in meticulous fashion. Like a finely woven web weaved by a spider, Bell’s prose will surely catch more than a few readers in its clutches, refusing to let go until the final sentence. Like a monster jigsaw puzzle, much of the satisfaction comes from having completed it, properly placing that final piece and looking over it with some sense of understanding. Even with the final piece in place though, that final conflict resolved, you’ll still feel a bit dazed and confused. Take, for example, the ending (don’t worry, no spoilers). The singing of the wife, something that is present in various forms throughout the book, is something that seems to only add an extra dimension of mystery to the book. Coming full circle, Bell lands on the singing as a way to piece together the ending. No tightly woven ending. Instead Bell goes for the ambiguous, highlighting the intricacies and nuances of married life and only adding on to what is already a mysterious relationship (between husband and wife). I could almost picture the wife standing there, singing idly, hoping for something more to happen, just so I didn’t have to stop reading. The mystery of this novel doesn’t wear off or lose its luster easily.
I suppose much of the magic from the book can be attributed to the material covered. Not so much the plot per se, rather the ambiance produced and environment created. There are elements of fabulist fiction, childhood fable, and mythological tales all tied together, pushing the narrative forward to a compelling conclusion. Take, for example, this passage, one of the first in which the fingerling is present:
The fingerling did not vacate my body as all other meat had. Instead he founded new residencies, new homes different from the womb he had previously inhabited, when his trajectory was pathed toward a more ordinary existence, that series of hatchings and moltings, egg to fetus to baby, boy to man. Now he was only this dead thing, ghosted into my belly-hole, into my lungs and my thigh, and in his first years he remained the pointer, so that he might one day notice my failings, and also the indexer, so that even from his earliest moments he might catalogue their occurrence.
These few lines take the reader away from the woods and place them in a netherworld, one based in some sense of reality but one that is wholly unique and almost magical. Bell is a talented writer undoubtedly (a blurb compares him Kafka, Borges, and Calvino) but with his latest offering he’s showing off a new skill. Much like a master chef charged mixing complex ingredients by hand, Bell sprinkles multiple elements, blurring genres, and bending forms. The result is something altogether original.
A beautiful story that is just as much about a man coming to grips the expectations of marriage and parenthood as it is a tribute to the long lost allegorical fables of a previous time, Bell’s ability to tightrope the high wire act of balancing the real emotions of his characters (this fractured family on the verge of combustion) with the surreal atmosphere he places the characters in is second to none. In the opening pages a moving scene where the husband takes the wife out to the lake, Bell begins to show signs of the husband’s interior feelings as well as the growing weight of expectations of a pending family.
I cradled her exhausted limpness, held her to my chest as I hoped that night to hold a child, and in this way we climbed up the muddy path from the lake, across the burned and muddy and darkened dirt, then into the false refuge of the house, where in those unlit rooms our new future awaited to tempt us into trying again: for the family we still hoped to make, the family for which my wife was again scraped ready, made to process some hungry space, some hollow as full of want as my own hard gut had always been.
It’s with this passage that the reader realizes that this book isn’t an either/or proposition rather it’s both. Both the haunting, magical elements of their surroundings, where moons coming crashing down at the sound of the wife’s voice and a deeply human story, grounded in these real feelings of missed opportunity and regret. The book is subtle enough to rock you to sleep yet penetrating enough to read in one setting.
This book is many things. Raw, visceral, unflinching, and, best of all, finely crafted. The narrative arc is equal to a fly ball lofted by a major league power hitter, hit right on the sweet spot, seemingly never coming down as it dares to scrape the clouds before falling into the stands for a home run. By the final page I felt like that often-replayed man-child, beer in one hand, souvenir ball in the other, jumping up and down joyously, ecstatic just to be a part of the game in some little way. I was delighted just by my mere proximity to this gem. It made me feel special, like I was in on a secret and gave me hope that literary fiction can, indeed, meld perfectly with the fabulist elements of surreal fiction. By the end I thought of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road but that wasn’t enough to do this justice. I scrambled around my bookshelf looking for the right combination. Bell’s mastery, his ability to combine different elements, like a mad chemist, reminds me of a mix between McCarthy’s hard scrabbled, tight prosed book and some of Blake Butler’s shorter works. This duality between the fable and the real, that is the real gift in this book.
Painted with the faintest of brush strokes, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and The Woods is saturated in a color palette that gives Bell’s wooded setting a heartbeat. The lake, the cabin, the animals, they’re all a part of the gorgeous landscape that Bell has created. You smell the pinecones; can hear the crunching of dirt pebbles beneath the characters feet. Bell places you in the moment, suspending your disbelief as he details the world he has created.
The next morning I sewed for myself an armor of furs, a grotesquery of layers upon layers, of thick skin and rough-nubbled hide, each swath stitched with a crudeness borne of my own fat fingers. I threaded together what we had meant to cover our floors and walls and our bed, and when I was finished I draped myself from tip to toe, then sewed my shape inside, made myself horrible, a beast meant to match the bear.
The wording, the attention to detail, all adds to the ambiance that Bell has created. Not only does he create this world but he also puts into place a slightly off narrator that is so in tune with his movements and thoughts that you feel as though you’re being guided through a national park by a slightly deranged park ranger.
Consider these two sentences at the beginning of the book. Full of such energy that it almost jumps off the page, the excerpt reminds me of the start to Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.” So much condensed into such a small space that it mystifies the reader as to just what the author can, and will, do next.
The dirt’s wettest season swelled, and then its hottest burst the world to bloom, and through those tumid months my wife swelled too, expanded in both belly and breast until the leaves fell–and afterward came no more growth, only some stalling of the flesh gathering within her. Even before it was obvious that there would be no baby, even then my wife began to cry, to sing sadder songs that dimmed our already fuel-poor gas-lamps, or cracked cups and bowls behind cupboard doors.
Be forewarned, this book will consume you. You’ll get lost within the dusty floorboards of the cabin, feel the murky bottom of the lake, and begin to hear voices coming from deep within the woods. The best part is that you won’t want the voices to go silent.
In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, by Matt Bell. New York, New York: Soho Press. 312 pages. $25.00, hardcover.
Patrick Trotti is a writer, editor, and student. On good days it’s in that order. For more go to patricktrotti.com.