There is a house. There is dirt, and there are woods and a lake. Living in the house are a husband and wife. In the woods there is a bear. That’s all the table-setting Matt Bell’s new book In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods indulges in. For a work of mythic fabulism, that’s pretty bare-bones. There is a tendency in books of this type to shoot for the grandiose in setting alone, to construct intricate and complex worlds that are only intricate and complex on the surface. At their core, they are standard, typical. The beauty of Bell’s book is his ability to sidestep that, to invest the mundane with the grandiose. Yes, house and dirt and lake and woods and husband and wife are simple elements, but each of those elements is infused with the trappings of the epic, the weight of the fable.
Bell achieves this largely through a push and pull of reader expectations. When we’re given a stripped down setting, we assume that the rules of the real world apply. We take for granted the existence of realism in its most conventional sense – the notion that the laws of the real world are at play. Bell constantly pulls the rug out from under this assumption. There are rules in this place – as there are in any work of fiction, fantastical or not – but the rules are not those of the real world. They are the rules of this very unique world that Bell has crafted. Even in the midst of otherworldly actions – a song that can weave objects, a bear speaking to a man – there is a logic that functions for this world alone.
Something fascinating happens as Bell moves his story forward. He allows the reader to try to find symbolism, to search for allegory. Those literary techniques are often associated with fabulism, but here, Bell uses the reader expectation for those one-to-one representations to clobber us with what we don’t expect, though we should: metaphor.
As I read In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, I thought again and again of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, another book that is stripped so bare its readers often take stabs at symbolic meaning. There are thousands of bad essays out there about how The Old Man represents this or the sharks that, how the marlin is one thing and the boy is another. Bell is a smart enough writer to know that when you present something seemingly simple to a reader – an old man fishing or a husband and wife living in a house near a lake – the reader is likely to search for a representation for those simple things. He’s also smart enough to focus, like Hemingway does, on telling the story rather than on building symbolic imagery. As we read, we try to figure out who the husband represents, but the truth is much more simple and much more complex. The husband is the husband just like the sharks are the sharks. They don’t directly represent anything, but they do show us something vital about the human condition.
This is metaphor writ large. It is metaphor in its broadest sense, the kind of metaphor that Cynthia Ozick writes about in her wonderful essay “Metaphor and Memory.” When Ozick writes, “We strangers can imagine the familiar hearts of strangers,” she is writing about the kind of metaphor at play in Bell’s novel, the kind of metaphor that enables us to delve into the lives of characters who live in a world governed by very different rules than our own. Bell tugs the reader along, knowing that we’ll tarry a little while as we try to parse the world he’s created into simple binaries. He doesn’t mind that hesitation, so long as it is temporary, so long as it resolves itself and moves on to the real work of the novel. The end result is a story of astonishing power. From a simple foundation, it creates a complex world, and we readers are the better for it.
Pages: 312 FOA Pages: 28,400