IN HIS NOVEL If on a winter’s night a traveler, fabulist Italo Calvino commented, regarding sex and reading, that the two “resemble each other … [in that] within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space.” If this is to be believed, then Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is a time and space warp compounded — a treatise on marriage and its couplings, fertility and lack thereof, gender roles and selfishness, all scaled to dimensions that distort easily, and bent between a set of covers.
Part modern-day fairy tale, part Biblical retelling, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is a fable set seemingly out of time in a secluded patch of wilderness. Bell — whose previous publications have included a novella, Cataclysm Baby, and a collection of stories, How They Were Found — is no newcomer to genre-bending innovation that bucks convention and pushes out into strange and haunting new places. (Readers may be interested in his spellbinding “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed,” published in Conjunctions.)
A nameless couple (nameless to the reader, anyway) settles into married life with each other, first in a cave and then in a self-built house on an isolated spit of land. Readers raised on Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain might think they recognize this story in the earliest pages, but a wilderness subsistence story this is not: idealistic nature-communing quickly gives way to magic, about which no one bats an eye. Despite the antiquity of their diction, one can almost imagine the husband and wife before coming to this place — a modern, yuppie couple deciding, like Into the Wild’s Christopher McCandless, that the wilderness is right for them, and learning, like him, that nature is always more than you bargain for, whether the teacher is the elements or talking animals. One might think that a novel that never introduces tech more advanced than a watch is going to be about survival, but this is survival of an entirely different sort.
The couple spends the beginning of the novel attempting to conceive a child, but the wife’s body rejects every pregnancy. The husband eats the leavings of his wife’s first miscarriage — don’t make that face, this is one of a thousand unnatural appetites that occupies these pages — and the unborn fingerling swims around his body. After her last attempt fails, the wife continues to pretend that she is pregnant, stuffing an animal skin beneath her clothes to make herself appear to still be with child. So it’s a surprise to her husband, who has been counting the hours until her deception is exposed, when she shows up with an actual infant. But where did the child come from? Nothing is as it seems in this world, this immaculate conception least of all.
Despite the physicality of the setting — the house, dirt, lake, and woods, all repeated like a mantra, described like the only points on a very small map — this retreat from the world cannot be pinpointed to any particular location. They are not in the White Mountains or the Adirondacks or the Sierra Nevadas, not in any state or country, and certainly not in any particular time. There’s no actual evidence of twenty-first-century-ness, besides a brief allusion to “the busy land where [they] were born.” The photo album and clocks, early on destroyed by the resident sentient bear, suggest a certain modernity, but everything else is so out of time it’s impossible to say.
This context-less world is not a new technique: Jacqueline Harpman’s Moi qui n'ai pas connu les hommes (I Who Have Never Known Men) similarly made its characters move about in a highly-controlled diorama while obscuring the rest of the world from the reader. The characters never venture outside of any of the elements in the book’s title — though they do venture even deeper inside of them. The wife possesses a magical voice that sings objects into being — furniture and baby toys and even a second moon — and she uses this power to cause the house to grow within itself, rooms shifting like a Rubik’s cube and multiplying like rabbits, going deep, deep into the earth, in imagery as horrifying as anything in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. At times we feel as if we are watching the husband and wife bounce from elements to element — house and then woods, woods and then house, house and then lake, lake and then woods, and so on, in a way that resembles Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist and Melancholia, whose plots and accompanying madnesses thrived on geographical (and otherwise) isolation.
As the wife raises her foundling child, the husband’s own discomfort about the new child’s origins moves from understandably confused to demented, utterly warped with jealousy and selfishness. Faced with his wife’s seeming parthenogenesis, he lashes out against this unexpected loss of heterosexual male privilege — his wife bearing his child. He has been “denied [his] lineage.” He’s been cuckolded — by her. Even with his understanding that his feelings are more about possession than family, his emotions escalate into viciousness, and by the end of the first act — having committed a great violence — his wife and the child disappear into the endless house, and he is alone. Every room he goes into is filled with some new and awful thing: memories and histories and truths of the past. What else can he do but follow her down to wherever she has gone?
Nothing good can come of this world, and nothing does. Though it starts in a place of inoffensive and even lovely magic, every chapter brings some new horror or perversion. Everything human leaks away and is replaced with doppelgängers and monsters, ursine hybrids, people-turned-animals, bodies deprived of anything that might make them real. The swallowed fingerling continues to occupy the husband’s body — his own unyielding pregnancy — spitting jealous and furious words, tempting his host like Lucifer in the desert. The narrative turns and twists in on itself. True to Calvino’s prediction (perhaps almost too literally), time begins to move differently between husband and wife, wife and child, everything splitting apart so messily that it’s almost anxiety-inducing.
Readers familiar with Bell’s short fiction will trust that the narrative will pull them through, though new readers might be uncertain about where all of this is going to lead. The strangeness is unrelenting. When trying to follow the novel becomes a challenge, the reader becomes like the husband: blindly groping deeper and deeper into the darkness.
To say In the House… is a retelling of certain Bible stories would do its complexity a disservice; to say that it merely has Biblical allusions would undersell this Garden of Eden, in which the wife is both created and creator, God and Mary, Eve and serpent, all while the husband limps behind, a feckless Joseph. The reader even witnesses an event as significant as Adam’s naming of the beasts:
as I shook her awake I saw there was no recognition in her dazed eyes, not of who I was to her, or who she was to me. She did not know even the single syllable of her name, nor the two of mine, not until I repeated those sounds for her — and then I made her say them back, to name me her husband, herself again my wife.
During her final pregnancy, the wife eschews her husband’s offering of fish and instead rips into bloody red meat like an animal. “‘In my father’s house,’” she tells him, “‘we ate only fish, but I am no longer in my father’s house, and the old ways no longer bind me.’” Cauterization of the past is a reoccurring motif.
The Biblical tone is also strengthened by the prose, which is poetic but old-fashioned to a fault. It has all of the nimble language play of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, but with statelier bones, words and images twinning and being incanted, playing and folding in on themselves.
While thematically appropriate, however, this language can occasionally become exhausting — the diction is so lofty that it is easy to feel a little lost. As in the King James Bible, polysyndeton abounds, but only adds to this feeling. One wonders if the style would be less tiring over a shorter length — a short story, novella, even a shorter novel. This problem isn’t limited to the prose, either: as it progresses, In the House… ends up spinning a little too crazily in every direction. As the characters unhinge, the madness of the narrative, combined with the arch Biblical language, becomes dizzying. The most fascinating element of the plot — namely, the deficiencies of gender essentialism, and its human consequences — is buried underneath the noise of magic. The reader will want to follow the rope of the relationship through the novel, and will at times feel utterly abandoned in a world with few, if any, rules. In the end, the problem might be as simple as the text running too long — what is 300 pages could have easily been half that.
I am reminded of Scott Esposito’s review of Jesse Ball’s The Curfew here at LARB, where he rightly takes a writer of whom he likes the idea to task for an underwhelming text. The problems with the two novels are hardly the same—where Ball was spare, Bell is loquacious; while Ball’s characters were, well, under-characterized, Bell’s are interesting and complex but buried under an avalanche of confusing, magical plot points—but I ultimately felt a similar (though more sympathetic) conflict: I am supportive of Bell’s career and a fan of much of his work, but I found this particular project to be messy and ultimately unsatisfying. Had I been reading the book for pleasure, I would have begun with great enthusiasm, but likely not made it to the end. That being said, if the reader is willing to wander in the wilderness for a while, the central ideas that are so compelling early on in the text do return. The madness quiets, and the ending is interesting, though perhaps it is too little, too late. But I will continue to follow Bell’s future work with interest—because despite his efforts to isolate, there is ultimately something deeply tangible and haunting about this non-place, about the people who are living and suffering there. One can almost imagine, over the mountains that separate the couple from the rest of the world, a distant city at the edge of a great, dark desert. And one can also imagine an observer at a party grabbing a smoke on a balcony facing the peaks, and noticing just beyond them a glowing strangeness that ripples and bends the sky. This, in the end, is the most compelling takeaway from the text: they could be out there, somewhere, eternally repeating the mistakes of every married couple, over and over, and if we searched hard enough, we could see them — from a distance, anyway.
(Many thanks to Ben Mauk for his assistance with this review.)