by Matt Bell
321 pages —Soho Press, 2013
Reviewed by Julia Bouwsma
Matt Bell’s extraordinary debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, sends the reader to walk the tenuous line between fairy tale and myth, fable and epic poem, in a land where memory swallows story, and story in turn swallows memory. Here a young couple leaves the land of their parents to begin a new life of their own on a new plot, which they believe they are the first to settle. The husband—who narrates all but the final chapter of the book—builds a house upon the dirt between the lake and the woods. The wife, able to sing objects into existence, finishes furnishing their home through the power of her voice. And then she tries to bear her husband a child, despite her own reservations, in order to complete “the dream I had given her of family, of husband and wife, father and mother, child and child.” Instead she miscarries an abomination, the barely-formed fingerling, which the husband impulsively and secretly swallows:
Into my body I partook what my wife's had rejected, and while she buried her face in the red ruin of our blankets I swallowed it whole--its ghost and its flesh small enough to have in my fist like an extra finger, to fit into my mouth like an extra tongue, to slide further in without the use of teeth--and I imagined that perhaps I would succeed where she had failed, that my want for family could again give our child some home, some better body within which to grow.
For the next five years the couple tries to conceive, but every pregnancy results in another miscarriage. And in new sorrow for the wife who, with each failure, sings the stars out of the sky and then sings into existence a second moon, which hangs ominously, too heavy for the horizon. Meanwhile, the husband smolders, the fingerling inside him, with a two-fold rage at his wife’s inability to provide him with a family and at his own impotence in the face of her ability to create and alter their world: “Always I had planned to be the maker of things, a steward of artifice, and yet here she was, able to call from within what I had to cull from without.” He takes to the lake and later to the woods where he stalks the mysterious female bear that has been watching them ever since their arrival, when they accidentally sought temporary shelter in her cave. His desire for conquest grows into an obsessive need to pursue and trap the smaller wild creatures.
At last, the wife, delighted, presents her husband with a baby. But the husband—suspicious throughout the strange pregnancy—does not trust this son as his own. He recoils from the child’s touch. He refers to him as the foundling. And so the foundling grows to fear his father as much as he adores his mother. And the distance between the couple grows as the wife begins to build a maze of separate rooms beneath the house. One night, after a terrible fight, she takes the foundling and flees beneath the earth, through “the black,” into the “deep house”—a list-poem labyrinth built of memory, a layered puzzle of rooms, each bearing a single fragment of the greater story:
And in this room, a filthy red ribbon, for putting up a woman’s hair, for tying it back.
And in this room, unwashed seeds split by fire, revealing the expectant sprouts inside, now doomed and dried.
And in this room, a sensation like the slight give of a bruised thigh, when pushed in upon by a thumb.
And in this room, a sound that might have been my wife’s voice, just too far off to hear.
Through these many halls, which begin as prefect recreations of memory and then, later, become their burned out shells—the husband must travel, once, twice into the “deep world” to find his wife. To find what she has created of memory in his absence. To find what memory has created of her.
In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is creation myth dropped on its head—the old stories and archetypes rearranged and layered one inside another like nesting dolls. Bell pulls from a variety of traditions, and his range is impressive. Norse, Greek, and Japanese myths surface, as does the Bible (the husband and wife are never named, but Bell hints they are Adam and Eve). But it is not so much his range of sources that impresses me, as it is his awareness of their many tentacles—of the way they wrap around, obfuscate, and play within one another. Much has been written about how this book is an allegory on marriage, and while this is certainly true, I see it even more as a commentary on the very act of and desire for creation, and therefore of creation myth itself—a mocking reminder of the hubris inherent in any impulse to create. A story, a song, a home, a new land, a child, an animal transformation: there is no attempt to extend oneself into the future that has not been tried before. Even in a new land there are ancestors, and they are watching you. Even in a new story there are ghosts. Archetypes—even those as complex as this husband and wife or the bear and her estranged mate, the ghostly whale/squid who haunts the lake—are still archetypes and as such are doomed to incompleteness, to perpetual repetition of their mistakes. As Bell quotes in the epigraph, borrowed from the 13th-century Norwegian text, The King’s Mirror: “It seems likely that there are but two and that these beget no offspring, for I believe it is always the same ones that appear.”
But re-writing the old stories carries risks far greater than the simple threat of futility or repetition. Creation—any attempt to “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”—is a disruption of all that came before, of all that was previously known as fact:
On the other side of the lake, across the mountains, the truth had been inscribed in the stars and could not be changed. Here, upon the dirt, my wife had wiped clean that sky-flung slate, and so I was not sure what to believe or where to look to discover that once I had simply known.
First comes the loss of the old truths, of their certainty and with it the certainty of self. And then the rising, unchecked strength of the things created—the new stories growing unpredictably away from their creators’ intentions. “Memory again as transformation,” Bell writes. The second moon falling inevitably from the sky. The many animals the husband kills rising once more from the ground, alive again and yet distorted. The foundling buried upon his death, suddenly emerging in thousands of variations to take over the woods. The fingerling spreading, cancerous, from one into many—from the husband’s body into the lake itself, the center of their world. The act of creation, like a story, developing its own momentum—swelling in ripples until the creators find themselves submerged in their own creation. “There was no creation from nothing but only from cost, and it was mostly with herself that she might pay,” Bell tells us. And if there is any ultimate moral here in In The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, this is it—that the desire for new beginnings is a desire inherent within each and every one of us, and that it always comes with a price.
Julia Bouwsma’s poems and reviews have appeared in journals such as Colorado Review, Cutthroat, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, Sugar House Review, Weave Magazine, and Wisconsin Review. Bouwsma is Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Co-editor of Shape&Nature Press, and Poetry Editor for New Plains Press. She lives in the mountains of western Maine.