Werner Herzog explained that what Kinski saw as sensuality in the jungle (during the filming of Fitzcarraldo), Herzog thought of as “overwhelming and collective murder.” We begin In the House Upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods in Kinski’s jungle, large and imaginary enough to accommodate a couple’s dream to start a family. This novel though is a multi-faceted instrument Matt Bell turns and tilts. As Matt Bell turns the prism nature is suddenly and nakedly Herzog’s: dominion of bears, squids and nourished by dirt and lake, the woods swarming, the tegument of that dream torn by the strain of failed pregnancies. Suddenly faced with what lay beneath the couple begins a series of reinventions and conceits. They consume whatever pure vision of life in the woods they once had and regurgitate forgeries.
These are personal forgeries, not Gaddis’ vision of cultural forgeries or Matrix-metaphysics, these are the last rites employed by two people refusing to believe in a childless world. They never really speak directly. Talking from different emotional time-zones, barely to each other, when they do they negotiate between the unrecognisable person in front of them and the frustration, desperation and anger they feel. Lodged in the centre of lies and accusations we also sense overwhelming guilt. Not to hurt each other by confronting the tragedy of repeated failed pregnancies, they also fail to confront the distance growing between them and Bell tilts the prism once again: obscuring wife from husband with the arrival of a baby boy. Pathologically suspicious of the child, the husband lashes out: tilt. Mother and child, an assemblage pieta of frayed odds and ends, escape from the husband (and violently ambivalent father) into deeper and deeper recesses of the house.
Intersecting fabulist mythology and domestic realism, Bell takes as familiar a theme as a couple escaping the confines of civic life and turns this paradigm into a constantly shifting platform on which nothing is ever firmly on its feet. Great escapes are one of our most enduring modern mythologies, from Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, Theroux’s Mosquito Coast, The Beach to slasher-fodder: The Evil Dead. Break free of capitalist am/pm restraints these narratives seem to say, cast off the life keeping you half floating, half drowning, and forge something new. But the message is always precautionary, you might come away with a greater sense of displacement or dismemberment than when you were a desk jockey. Isolation allows the artist to use a default setting: man, wife, tools. Uncovering every surface of this constriction Bell carves from one piece of wood a thousand faces. There will be other houses, permutations of woods, new lakes and different textures of dirt. Just like there will be other fathers, mothers, children, foetuses, bears, squids and houses.
Penumbral voices guide us through the novel, belonging to the husband, but also to manifestations of the still-born “fingerling” our narrator ingests right at the start. Thanks to Matt Bell’s Beckettian ear for the whispered – some stories are told, others overheard – we are never interrupted by exposition or explanation, we only have to go on eavesdropping. This voice allows you to sit inside the novel. Whatever mechanisms Bell uses to accelerate the story, the wheels, gears, engine, they all work silently outside of the voice. Deeper in the house we listen through many doors to many voices.
Cataclysm Baby, Matt Bell’s previous book, takes place in a world demarcated from ours but is clearly a post-tech, apocalyptic outgrowth of it. In his new novel the world of dirt, lake, woods is a temporal glitch. Landscape changes register, forging with the wife new surfaces and depths of lake. Every moving part moves another part, so the house, dirt, lake and woods are dynamically involved in the unspooling lives of the couple, as are bear, cub and squid. This world becomes all trace, false-scents, and their existence consists of removing and replacing these traces of their former lives. This is not apocalyptic isolation, it takes place in and out of the world, a half submerged hinterland. It is meticulous, but it is not a tactical novel. If you remove a piece it would fall like its eponymous house into the ground It has the subtle mark of a feeling construction, a felt design.
Epiphany comes too late to the husband to mean anything: “…to become some true father to complement her endless motherhood, instead remaining only her husband, that insufficient shape to which always I stubbornly clung.” Our narrator’s regrets span lifetimes from the first episode of violence, so that we might not trust this sentiment but we feel the despairing sincerity of his final regret. They came to trace the exact edges of their world upon the dirt, but they lost all bearing of themselves in the reinventions. In all the permutations of their recreations, forgeries, constructions, complexities, the only life they fail to sing into being is that of man and wife. Childless life is the revelation they never realise, or never conceive of as an option, indicating that the heartbeat of this novel also has something to do with unrequited dreams, dangerous dreams, singing what may never be into being only to discover it never was.
Trying to sum up compactly what it all means leads me back to the starting-line of the novel: Undeliverable. Read Matt Bell’s new novel eavesdropping intently and what you will hear draws you closer and closer to the door.