I’m not sure what is more disappointing: a beautifully written novel with nothing to say, or a poorly written novel with something powerful and rare to say. At least with the former, there isn’t a sense of missed opportunity, but with the latter there comes a sadness for the reader. It’s clear that something uniquely true is buried beneath layers of overwriting, clumsy prose, or unintended opacity, and to know that it is so close, but not fully realized is hard to swallow.
Matt Bell’s new novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods manages to narrowly avoid being classified as “a novel with something to say, but without the ability to say it.” The novel is as overwritten as the title might suggest. It goes on far too long and often loses itself in overwhelming metaphor and language. Yet in spite of that, it has enough moments of beauty and power that the reader can appreciate the ideas at work, obscured as they may be.
The novel tells the story of a man and his wife who live in an unidentified time and place. After getting married, they leave their families and their town behind to live isolated in a house in the middle of the woods. The couple tries repeatedly to have children–the husband having a burning desire to be a father–but each pregnancy fails. The novel quickly takes on magical and surreal qualities as the pain of these failed pregnancies begins to manifest itself in unexpected ways.
For example, the husband/narrator observes after a failed birth: “Even before it was obvious that there would be no baby, even then my wife began to cry, to sing sadder songs that dimmed our already fuel-poor gas-lamps, or cracked cups and bowls behind cupboard doors.” It becomes clear that this woman’s singing has magical powers that directly impact the physical world around her. Early on in the novel, her song even brings the sky to the ground:
“At last the sky was so dimmed and emptied of its ancient alphabet that we lost the shapes of even the oldest stories, the comforts of our parents’ myths, for now there was no more sky-bear, no tall-tree beside it or gold-crown to rest upon its head.”
The mythic language works powerfully in small doses, but begins to take its toll as the story grows more complex; some of the simple plot points become unnecessarily difficult to discern as a result of the prose. Without spoiling too much, a giant bear, a giant squid, and many other oddities come into play before the story ends, often overwhelming the excitement that comes with our journey into the husband’s mind.
What keeps the novel from being a total failure, however, is Bell’s valiant attempt to depict the challenges of marriage and love. Countless authors have explored these issues in worlds familiar to ours, but to do so in this mythical universe gives an unexpected weight and freshness to the extensive valleys and rare peaks of this couple’s feelings for one another. The husband’s narration exposes the reader to raw and honest emotion as he attempts to remain in love with this woman in spite of the fact that she is unable to give him what he so desperately desires.
The best fantasy stories work because they expose something about the way we live that realism could never uncover. The surreal setting of In the House… allows for scenes and characters that challenge us to examine the ways we treat those we love, and to realize the ways in which our expectations can be entirely self-centered and eventually destructive. The end of the novel is surprising and does not allow for any easy answers, but it forces the reader to acknowledge our collective guilt as we so often attempt to walk the impossible line of simultaneously loving those around us while toying with reality in order to make life conform to our desires.
To borrow again from the narrator: “Despite all my long wants, I had never once thought rightly of how to be a parent, or a husband; only of possessing a child, of owning a wife.” Bell’s book uncovers the difficulties and destructiveness of loving others for what they can give us. Ultimately, to love someone for what they can offer you is to use them as a means to an end. It is not to love another, but it is to use another to love oneself. It is to turn the “other” into a currency used to purchase the real object of one’s affection. And we don’t need anyone to tell us that this is a toxic.
But really, what alternative is there? For my money, the only true alternative–the one that we’re all really scratching after anyway–is to see love as an end in itself. And how might we come to love others, not for what they might give us–not for how they make us feel? At this point, the Christian faith steps in and claims that the only way to accomplish this impossible feat is if one has already received this kind of impossible love from a source outside oneself. And this is exactly what Jesus Christ seems to be about when he goes to the cross for us human beings. He is not in it for what we once gave him (nothing), or what we can give him (nothing), or even what we might give him in the future (which for all intents and purposes amounts to nothing). He loves because he loves. There is no other end. And, I would suggest, that it is coming to terms with this reality–this strange, surreal, mythic (à la Lewis’ “Myth Became Fact”), true, historical reality–which makes love come alive. To whatever extent In the House… helps us to see again the surreal nature of reality, and to better grasp the character of love, it’s worth a read–a cumbersome, complicated read.