It’s too easy to describe Matt Bell’s work as mythic. A lot about it is, but what makes it such a valuable addition to the field of stuff you can read is not just the way it draws from and modernizes mythic structures, but the way it burns through those structures to touch the awe and terror that gave rise to them. In The House Upon The Dirt Between The Lake And The Woods, his phenomenal debut novel, tells a story about barrenness and fertility that is also a story about the fight to heave off the expectations and limitations of mythic storytelling.
Bell writes with the leisurely flow of an oral epic, and his unnamed, communally defined characters (“my wife,” “our false son”) have as much lineage in ancient Greece and Scandinavia as they do in contemporary America, but instead of aspiring to the oral epic’s universal openness, In The House aspires to its own brand of claustrophobic intimacy. The narrator speaks like a bard but his story is his own, his voice unmistakably first-person.
This story is filled with quests, labyrinths, and totem animals, taking its shape partly from Orpheus (a husband seeks his wife along a seemingly never-ending downward path), and partly from Faust (this man fends off invitations to cowardice offered by a devilish miscarried boy living in his guts), but it strips these familiar elements of their cultural baggage and moral agendas. Free of what’s boring and overdetermined about them, they start to feel a lot stranger and more dangerous.
Expanding and arguably redeeming Cataclysm Baby’s series of thwarted pregnancies and births, In The House opens with a young couple crossing a giant lake with dreams of building a house and starting a family on the far side. They leave the stories of their youth behind, determined to raise their children with no stories or with new ones.
At first, their world contains nothing but the house, dirt, lake, and woods of the title. But, as husband and wife respond to the failure of each pregnancy in their own peculiar ways, the question of whether the old world can ever truly be left behind overshadows their lives, conflating Genesis with Exodus: they want only to be alone together in Eden, but the bone-memory of Egypt lingers.
When the wife vanishes, leaving her husband to battle and bargain with a giant bear and squid, the novel takes on aspects of the wilderness survival and solitary thinker genres. Everything from Jack London to Thoreau to Laird Barron’s squeamish woodsy monstrousness figures in.
But nature, here, is a sentient and participatory player. It’s neither a waste that nullifies human striving nor a placid and passive backdrop. Bell’s vision of nature, and of the whole cosmos, is too responsive to magic to be a sterile void: stars, moon, water, caves, and the earth itself are all subject to the human id in ways too provocative to forestall the onslaught of mythic thinking.
The stripped-down world across the lake grows pregnant with monsters and fragments of stories just as the wife grows pregnant with fragments of children. Soon Walden is long gone and we’re fully within the fantastic.
It takes a while to get here, but the very first scene starts us in this direction: the introduction of the wife’s pregnancy shares a page with the introduction of her ability to sing objects into being and, soon after, to sing the stars out of the sky. This is an image of razing the old world, blacking out the constellations, but it’s also a moment in which nature and humanity dance in a way that demands to be mythologized.
“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.”
This is the epigraph, from a medieval Norwegian text, that opens the book. For a while, I didn’t get what it meant.
As the new world comes more and more to resemble the old, the novel builds up a complex system of recurrence and multiplicity. In a washing, tidal motion, the few elements we began with swell and grow, not only through sexual reproduction but through ceaseless intercourse between nature and imagination, until their ranks include an unwieldy array of creatures, ghosts, and semi-real architecture.
This proliferation becomes maddeningly uncountable, swarming the landscape … until it breaks down, bringing us back to the original two that, true to Norwegian wisdom, are “always the same ones.” Nothing born remains and nothing dead is gone for good.
This problem of repeating versions is itself a version of the problem of getting at real things through the cloud of stories around them. It’s a problem of singularity and originality that touches the roots of both parenthood and storytelling.
The front cover blurb likens Bell to Kafka, Borges, and Calvino. To the top of this list I’d add Bruno Schulz. In Schulz’s warm, muddy grotesque, the drama comes from a tug-of-war between infinite fertility and stark limitation. His, too, is a pre-Biblical world, ruled by an ambivalent and depraved creative spirit that creates nothing perfect and nothing final, thus serially reiterating fundamental flaws.
The challenge in making a story matter in an environment this slippery lies in establishing a countervailing hardness, a weight and sense of what’s at stake and what’s irreparable – proof of a hard bottom beneath the soft middle, or of a fixed center around which everything else revolves.
Bell makes good on this. You can always travel deeper down in his shapeshifting house, just as the husband can always impregnate his wife again, but it all adds up or boils down to the same thing, and from this there’s no escape. The couple is free to stop telling the stories they were told, but their world will not stop producing them.
This inevitability makes the book, impressionistic and hallucinatory as it is, a gripping and tragic work of art. There’s always been a positivity to Bell’s writing underneath all that’s grim about it, perceptible as a love of the creative act itself. Although all children and all stories will reflect their makers and share their fate, the success of this novel argues that there can be no defeat in total devotion to the work of making them.