The OF Blog: Matt Bell, In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Matt Bell, In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods

Beneath the unscrolling of the new sun and stars and then-lonely moon, she began to sing some new possessions into the interior of our house, and between the lake and the woods I heard her songs become something stronger than ever before.  I returned to the woods to cut more lumber, so that I too might add to our household, might craft for her a crib and a bassinet, a table for changing diapers, all the other furnishings she desired.  We labored together, and soon our task seemed complete, our house readied for what dreams we shared – the dream I had given her, of family, of husband and wife, father and mother, child and child – and when the earliest signs of my wife's first pregnancy came they were attended with joy and celebration. (p. 3)
For a single person such as myself, the tugs and pulls of marriage is something that is barely grasped in a second-hand fashion.  The competition of wills trying to forge a melding of personalities into a harmonious relationship can threaten to rift any partnership, no matter how strong the couple may believe their bonds to be.  Who dominates?  Who submits?  Who blazes paths and who smooths them?  Mix in various levels of desire for offspring and the complicated chemistry becomes even more fragile and liable to be dissolved into acrimony.  Or so it seems to some who have not yet succeeded in discovering the magic formula that will weather these assaults on companionship.

Matt Bell tackles this complex, complicated issue in his third book (and debut novel), In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.  Bell easily could have chosen to cast this story of a newly-married couple and their pitfalls and (little) triumphs in a more traditional narrative in which the interior monologues, peppered with brief yet incisive dialogue, could convey to readers the stresses of this marriage.  Yet Bell eschews this, instead choosing to create a narrative that feels fabulistic in tone and universal in its theme.  This is a riskier approach to take, as readers accustomed to strict realism may find the imagery to be too unsettling for their tastes.  However, for the most part Bell manages to achieve most of his literary ambitions here.

In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods frequently employs metaphors to convey the emotional divide between the husband and the wife.  In the paragraph quoted above (taken from the first page), Bell connects song (and through it, communication/language) to creation of new, wondrous things within the new household.  He later reinforces this with the previously-alluded to creation of a new moon:

There my wife again began to sing, and with some new song – on more powerful than any other I had yet heard or imagined – she took something from me, and also a similar portion from herself, and into the sky she lifted what she had taken until it took on some enlarged shape, until it became a heavenly body with its own weight and rotation and orbit:  At the request of her melody, our flesh became a new moon, a twin to the one already hung.

Beneath the new light, my wife explained that her moon was a shape meant not to reveal the sky but perhaps to split the dirt, to destroy what house I had built, its shifting walls.  Not a memorial to her sorrow, but at last a way to end it:  With the crashing shatter of the moon, the lake would empty its waters, and the woods would burst into flame and even the cities across the far mountains might shake with the horror of our divorce.  The moon would someday fall – this she promised, regardless of her pregnancy's outcome, for the sky was not made to hold its weight – but with song she could delay its plummet into the far future, for the sake of this new joy in her belly. (p. 22)
There are many conceptions embedded within this moon metaphor.  Where the reader might at first be tempted to connect the moon to femininity, Bell seems to be striving to create new associations.  The taking from each partner implies a creation that is akin to but separate from its progenitors, but with the threat of this new creation, this new light reflector, being torn asunder.  The wife's song moreover serves as a connector.  It is through her voice, her communication of desires and wants, that this "moon" is able to sustain itself.  In this sense, it is her singing (which occurs repeatedly throughout the narrative) that embodies the central conflict of this novel:  the voicing of different aims and desires.

Granted, Bell's extensive use of allusion and metaphor makes it more difficult for readers to wrest meaning from the narrative.  This, however, is not a condemnation nor a criticism; it merely notes that the narrative does not easily yield its riches.  If the reader is diligent and considers not just the imagery but also the emotions that exist around the symbolic speech and action, then she will discover a wealth of poignant scenes and powerful moments.  However, there are times where the metaphors fail to convey suitable nuances of intention.  Although relatively small in number, there are occasions where Bell's metaphors fall flat, as though he tried too hard to infuse his narrative with symbolic portents, leading to scenes that feel depressed, crushed under the weight of their metaphors.  Furthermore, rich as most of his images are, there are occasions that it seems that a more direct, less allusive approach might have yielded even greater emotional impact.

These, however, are issues that only dampen slightly the impact of Bell's narrative.  The conclusion is rendered near pitch-perfectly, leaving readers believing that the effort that they put into processing and deciphering Bell's symbolism-laden text was more than worth the effort.  In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is a debut novel that shows that its writer is beginning to realize the promise shown in his previous shorter fiction.  Looking forward to seeing what Bell produces in the future, as this is one of my favorite debut novels released so far this year.


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