A Review of
In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods: A Novel
Reviewed by Timothy Stege
I remember an episode of the sitcom The Rules of Engagement where one of the main characters, a young man, just got engaged to and moved in with his girlfriend. Throughout the first part of the show the newly-engaged man is bubbling over with excitement as he anticipates this new life before him. His fiancée has already registered for their wedding shower and compiled the list of gifts she wants, including a cake plate that sets the young groom off to dream about cake. Ignoring the warnings of his jaded long-married friend who tells him that a cake plate does not mean cake, he goes off to the store to make his cake dreams come true. He gets back from the store and while his fiancée sits on the couch, he shares his hopes of cake with her and with a flourish sets out on the table a mixing bowl, spoon, flour, frosting, and other ingredients and with a sort of “ta-da” he calls her attention to the ingredients and utensils. She wastes no time in letting him know that she wanted a cake plate, but has no desire to bake a cake. While this sets him off on a journey of disappointment and questioning and rediscovery of his love for her, it is a journey crammed into a brief 22 minutes and the resolution is quick and clear.
Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is no sitcom, and what resolution is finally achieved is anything but quick and clear, but is rather fraught with tension and misgiving and arrived at after a much higher price is paid. In the House is a fairy tale, but it is definitely more Grimm brothers than Disney. It is a fairy tale not where all your hopes and dreams come true, but one that serves as a vehicle through which all the struggles and failures and broken expectations of life and marriage and family play out in surreal time––a fantastical landscape where reality is sung into existence and grief calls down the stars and where man and woman and husband and wife and father and mother and creator and destroyer and ghost and beast and cub and boy are part of the elements and are transforming one into the other and finding out that they are all part of one another, inside one another.
It is a tale that begins to fracture and lose coherence as the dreams and expectations for their marriage begin to do the same. As this husband and wife form their lives in this house upon the dirt, their attempts to add to the elements of family by having children are frustrated through failed pregnancies that take a monumental toll upon their relationship and even their very identities. The husband, who is also the narrator, has living within him the remains of the first failed child, and the bitterness and loss of their grief is manifest in this remnant. He captures the weight of their mounting loss and the impact it has on him and his wife as he reflects on his resentment toward this indwelling specter of lost child: “Already I was made to learn to despise him by his words, and also sometimes her, and as each child sputtered inside her, my wife moved away, or else I did, until at last we were rarely in the same part of the house, our voices kept too distant to easily speak to each other” (18).
The losses not only drive them further apart but drive them to further extremes––one to strive against all hope to create and one to destroy out of frustration that nothing else had brought about the life he wanted. Both impulses are birthed out of loss, out of unquenched desire, and the inability to cleanse their marriage of the stain of failure. Throughout the novel, the bed sheets they received at their wedding serve as a reminder of the permanent marks of their loss: “the once-white linens we were given, on which we tried our best to make our children, on which our losses slowly stained the white brown, no matter what soaps we scrubbed against its threads” (234). The disintegration of their hopes drive the wife deeper under the house, delving new rooms of memories of what was and what she longed for still and the husband escalates his violent dominance at the expense of his body until he is a broken shadow of his old self.
Playing out against the fairy tale landscape with its magical transformations and irreconcilable time sequences are the very real and human concerns about what elements make a family, out of what fabric do we form our lives. Early in the tale as the lost pregnancies mount up and they repeat the ceremony of burying the child that never was as the wife calls down the stars in grief, we see that the loss of these stars hints at the loss of something greater, something deeper: “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…From then on whatever sky we lived beneath was not the sky of our parents, and whatever stories we might tell our children would not be the stories we had been told” (18). While Bell does not draw a clear line from the loss of these stories––and with them, the loss of continuity with the past and with experiences of the parents and grandparents that had gone before them––to the fraying of their own elements of family, it is worth noting that it is not until the stars begin to appear again in the night sky that there is a glimmer of hope for the dreams of this husband and wife to be father and mother. Even then, though, there is no sitcom style TV ready resolution, but even the arrival of long-awaited hope comes intertwined with loss. And much like life, this fairy tale does not end with the kiss that awakens the princess or the wedding after the slipper is found to fit; rather, Matt Bell’s tale ends with unanswered questions and the awareness that the uncertainty, the searching, the loss and hope of this life continue.