The Short Version: Far from the city, across the mountains, a new-married couple come to settle upon the dirt. Flush with love and hope, they begin to craft a world there – but as pregnancies go unfulfilled, the couple drifts apart and their world drifts with them.
The Review: This is one of those books that almost requires comparisons to other books. That whole “it’s this plus that with a dash of the other, if the other was something other than what they are” thing gets a little annoying more often than not… but here, in many ways, it’s the only way to get a handle on what Matt Bell has done. Because I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever quite read a book like this. I’ve read books that have, in their own ways, attempted to do this (I’ll explain what “this” is in a minute) in one way or another – but never a book that has succeeded. And, indeed, I got worried as I cracked it open. The first two analogies to my mind were There Is No Year and Light Boxes – two fantastical novels, both full of language that tries to impress you with its audacity and circuitous plot that only stands to deliver an allegory of some kind. But the latter revealed its larger scope too late, resulting in an unsatisfying sense of the author trying too hard – and as for the former, don’t get me started again on how awful Blake Butler is. But these two books were where my mind went as I started the book and I’ll freely admit: I was nervous. I was worried.
And at times, this book tried my patience. I’ll say that without any qualms. The writing feels meticulous to a fault, as though each word and its position in a sentence was slaved over for some particular authorial purpose. As a result, the syntax of any given line can veer towards Yoda-esque (I exaggerate for effect). But when I read a passage aloud to my girlfriend, her initial response was “that’s exhausting” and it really was. I could only take the first 50 pages or so in the smallest bursts before feeling like I was tired of having to adjust to the unfamiliar and unnecessary heightened language. Because the words themselves are all beautiful and I have no doubt of Bell’s ability as a writer – he just didn’t need to try so hard is all.
As I got further into the book, however, I got used to the writing a bit (although never quite to the level of how one gets “used” to Shakespeare and then it just sounds natural – there was always something slightly artificial here) and the plot picked up unexpectedly, delivering something entirely different from what I’d anticipated. There are fantastical elements here – a woman who can sing things into being, a semi-sentient bear and something else that lives in the lake, the spirit of a dead child who lives on inside his father – but they all serve a purpose and that purpose is the thorough examination of what it means to decide to have a child. The strains it puts on a relationship, the new levels of expectation and the new opportunities for misunderstandings, the way it changes everything irrevocably. I’ve watched one of my dear friends change over the first six months of his daughter’s life – but this book is the first time I actually got a gut sense, a sense that extends beyond or outside of words, of what it means to a) decide to share a life with someone but to then b) attempt to create a new life. And the way that the ease of communication between two people who’ve said “til death” can change and grow harder as that simple connection grows older.
This is not to say that the book is just allegory and that it’s only really going to serve as term-paper fodder for grad students – the fantastical elements that develop and slowly take over the novel are as chilling, inventive, and complex as those of House of Leaves. I won’t say exactly why I call that book up as the third “it’s like this” novel – but readers of both will know immediately. Danielewski and Bell use a similar idea to similar effect – but where Danielewski was going for a horror thing, Bell uses it to delve much deeper into the human psyche and to explode out the little things that make up a relationship, the interpretations of a given moment that might change everything (no matter how simple). There are also some scary moments, I’ll admit – although the stakes never seem too high in terms of the protagonist dying. Instead, you get the sense of metaphysical stakes; a game of understanding, not of life & death.
My only other complaint about the book is that it feels too long. Coming in just over 300 pages, the last third attempts resolution but then cycles back through a variation of the same theme we’ve been dealing with over the whole of the book and it just felt too much. It felt like one too many – and then the ending, when it did come, was lacking in any real fulfillment because you were exhausted from everything that had just occurred. But I also say this from the standpoint of someone who read the last half of the novel over the course of 6 hours, where I’d read the first half over several days – so perhaps the exhaustion was my own fault.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Ultimately, while I appreciated the invention and the excellent examination of what it means to be a parent, a husband, a person… the airy nature of the book and the careful constructed text left me a little cold. It’s certainly one of the more interesting books, technically, that I’ve read in a while – but for all the investigation of feelings, there was a certain lack thereof that kept me somewhat outside the novel looking in. Still, it’s also well worth the read for some of the strangely beautiful images Bell creates – the second moon cracking the sky, the bear, the complex simplicity of the dirt and the lake and the woods. I look forward to whatever might come next from Mr. Bell.