Saturday, July 6, 2013

Matt Bell: In the House Upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods

An hour or so after I started reading, I tweeted this:

Now that I’ve finished Matt Bell’s novel, I’ll admit that early impression was a bit hasty. The Antichrist parallels are there, but the book is more than that. I also felt echoes of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Phantastes by George MacDonald, but In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods ends up standing out on its own terms, and being something quite different than I expected when I started.

The setup for In the House is simple: a husband and wife (not named, directly at least) move out to a house whose location you can figure out from the title. They want to have a child, but the wife keeps suffering miscarriages, and pain of loss drives a wedge in their relationship. The husband tries to deal with his grief by subduing the land and hunting it bare, while the wife sings objects into being in an attempt to fill the empty space the child would have occupied. (That’s right. This is a fantasy novel.)

This is where I first saw the Antichrist parallels. It’s a movie about a husband and wife (also not named) whose child dies in the very first scene. In an attempt to deal with their grief, they move to a remote cabin in the forest. If you know anything about Lars von Trier’ movies, it won’t be a surprise to hear things don’t turn out well for the couple.

Where Antichrist revels in the pain of its protagonists, keeping them locked in spirals of increasingly destructive behavior for nearly the entire running time, In the House has a plot. Eventually, at least. It takes a while to get going, but by the end, neither the husband nor the wife is anywhere close to where they began the story. Also, animals play important and mysterious roles in both In the House and Antichrist

(Since I like to mention the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky whenever I get the chance, von Trier dedicated Antichrist to Tarkovsky. The entire movie can be seen as an adaptation of an idea Tarkovsky mentions in the documentary Voyages in Time when he's asked if there are any movies he wishes he could have made but didn't.) 


House of Leaves is a sprawling, deliberately messy book, full of footnotes, appendices, text crawling every which way across the page, and a few annoying frame stories. (I think frame stories are almost always annoying.)  But the good part of the book is an extended essay about The Navidson Record, a documentary about a house with a door to a spatially impossible, ever expanding universe.  The inhabitants of the house set out to explore the world behind the door, and end up nearly losing themselves in the process. 

In the House also features an impossible interior world, but where the Navidsons can never figure out where their door came from, In the House’s domestic landscape is literally sung into being by the wife. Bell devotes numerous pages to describing the house’s rooms—to varying effect, I thought—with paragraphs beginning, “And in this room…” Eventually, we do get to the bottom of the house, while the Navidsons’ abyss is never fully explored. 

I don’t want to go into much detail on the Phantastes aspects of In the House, because those parallels only become apparent later in the novel, and discussing them would spoil more of the story than I want to do here. What I will say is that when I read Phantases—a mythic novel about a man’s journey from selfishness to sacrifice—I always expected it to reach some point of catharsis, and I was satisfied when it did. I didn’t expect the same from In the House (especially given my Antichrist impressions), which made the novel’s conclusion all the more effective.

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