Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review of In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods and the Woods exists in an old age; old because it happened long ago and old because it has been alive a long time, been many places and seen many things. It seeks the paradox of simple symbolism and meaninglessness of folk tales and legends, but with an awareness of all that has happened in storytelling in the last century or so. Like Jess Ball's The Way Through Doors, the works of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, and a number of short stories by the famous and the less so, Matt Bell's novel taps into a growing trend of neo-folklore, stories and books using the rhythm, imagery, and events of folklore, myth, and legend to grapple with the chaotic, contradictory and confusing problems of modern living, subduing the mad complexity of an instant internet world into the simple images of campfire legends. This trend hasn't developed into a genre of its own yet, but it is one major commercial breakthrough from being a pop culture phenomenon. I don't know if In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods will be that breakthrough, (Frankly, I have no fucking clue why some books break and others don't except when Oprah does it.) but it is an excellent novel, with an archetypal story and a powerful voice.

Two characteristics jumped out at me as I read. The first is the book's quiet brutality. With movies and video games we expect violence and brutality to be loud; gunshots, explosions, screams, the sound of breaking glass, mysterious engines revving out of sight of the victim strapped to a chair, folley-enhanced martial arts; but not all violence is loud. The narrator is a man, a fisherman and then later a trapper. The effect of his traps on the bodies of the animals he catches is related in clear and precise detail. Muscles are torn. Bones broken. Tendons snapped. Skin rent. The man fights a bear and every wound dealt and received is chronicled. There is decay and rot. Bodies break down. The man fights a squid and every wound dealt and received is chronicled. The man is torn apart by foundlings. He has a heart attack. His wife is burned beyond recognition. The bear smashes a foundling's skull. All in perfect detail but at a volume just above a whisper. It's an effect that could pass under your reading radar, but once I noticed, it was clear Bell's book belongs to the long tradition nature of red in tooth and claw narratives.

Second, is the distinctiveness of the voice itself. From the opening line, you can hear the voice in your head, like someone reading to you. The voice reminds me of good bourbon, how it can be smooth and biting at the same time, how it can be warm and give you shivers, how it has both comfort and desperation. But just like bourbon, if you like it you love it and if you don't you hate it. By definition, the distinctiveness of Bell's narrative voice will turn some readers away. If you don't like the voice, nothing in the plot or the character will redeem the book in your eyes. That is the risk of distinctive writing; on one edge, you break ground, excite imaginations, stretch capacities, and earn the respect of devoted readers and on the other edge, you cut your work off from swaths of the reading public. It is not hard to see why so many different books by so many different people all sound the same.

At its heart, this is a story about a man way, way over his head. The semi-nameless narrator (though it's never said, you can figure it out, or, at least I think I did.) just wants children with the wife he loves (figured out her name first) in the isolated house he made and to fish and trap for food until the day he dies. That's it. But everything around him is vastly more powerful; his wife who can sing things into being, the woods with its bear, the lake with its squid, the dirt, the ghosts, the moon, and when his wife creates a child from a bear cub because she was never able to carry a pregnancy to term, even that foundling is more powerful than the man. In an impulsive move, the man goes to kiss the small corpse of the first miscarriage (remember that quiet brutality thing) and swallows it instead and that being, called “the fingerling” is also more powerful in many ways than he is. And while we're at it, the man is selfish, short-sighted, and myopic. But he survives, and if survival itself does not equal power, it equals something like power, in that the man is always around to contribute, productively or destructively to all the surrounds him.

The story is told with the archetypes and elements of folklore and so it risks being read as an allegory. At times, I did, but then couldn't quite decide what it was an allegory for. I had options, some I liked, others I questioned, but the fact that I had options, that the equivalencies of allegory wouldn't stand still, proves In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is more novel than allegory, more story than tale, more prose than scripture. Bell gets pretty close to a prose equivalent of a Rorschach test and readers who look hard enough will see something. Ultimately, whether you like the book or not will come down to whether you like the voice. If you dig gritty, western-y, McCarthy-y prose, you'll probably dig the voice, but if you're more of a delicate sentences in sophisticated constructions kind of reader this book might not be for you. Personally, I dig both (you know, me and Uncle Walt containing multitudes and such) and in the voice I saw a talented and imaginative storyteller showing us something we might not have seen before in a way we might not have considered. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is an excellent book, a solid debut, and, hopefully, the beginning of a long career for a very talented storyteller.

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