Bell’s opening line gives little indication that we’ve entered a very different kind of novel: “Before our first encounter with the bear I had already finished building the house, or nearly so.” So far, so Hemingway. But almost immediately, you can hear Bell’s prose shift into the fabulist register as this unnamed narrator describes his wife’s contribution to their home: “Beneath the unscrolling story of new sun and stars and then-lonely moon, she began to sing some new possessions into the interior of our house, and between the lake and the woods I heard her songs become something stronger than ever before.”
It’s an intoxicating opening, dreamy but intensely, sometimes grotesquely, physical and rendered in syntax that’s just twisted enough to push us off balance. Bell is working in a tradition that stretches from Aimee Bender to Richard Brautigan to Walt Whitman and much, much further back into the mists of myth. For readers weary of literary fiction that dutifully obeys the laws of nature, here’s a story that stirs the Brothers Grimm and Salvador Dali with its claws.
The edenic young couple at the center of “The Lake and the Woods” have moved away from civilization to “this far lonelier shore” where they can live off the land and raise a large family. But those plans are thwarted: “The dirt’s wettest season swelled, and then its hottest burst the world to bloom, and through those tumid months my wife swelled too, expanded in both belly and breast until the leaves fell — and afterward came no more growth, only some stalling of the flesh gathering within her. 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.”
The rough poetry of those sentences is just as gorgeous as it is devastating, cream spiked with grief. Anyone — and we are far more numerous than we let on — who’s experienced the shock and grinding horror of miscarriage or birth defects will be especially hit by these early pages. “I began to take more of my hours outside the house I had built,” the narrator says, “inhabiting instead the lake and the woods, whose strange failings could not be laid so squarely upon my deeds, nor the body of my wife.” In wholly unpredictable language, Bell captures the way sorrow wedges itself between a hopeful father and mother, triggering recessive genes of blame and suspicion that successful pregnancies would have left dormant in their minds. The wife calls down the stars and knits mismatched booties for babies that will never be born; the narrator keeps his distance until, soon, they’re not speaking to each other at all — “our lives a stasis of secrets.”
Despite the poignancy of these passages with their startling mixture of pedestrian and magical details, the story’s dominant tone is more grotesque: At the scene of the first miscarriage, the narrator tells us that he is so overcome by sadness and desire that “into my body I partook what my wife’s had rejected, and while she buried her face in the red ruin of our blankets I swallowed it whole — its ghost and its flesh. . . . I imagined that perhaps I would succeed where she had failed, that my want for family could again give our child some home, some better body within which to grow.”
You can’t break away from these first few pages, swept by storms of celebration and misery, false hope and surging resentment. As husband and wife try and fail again and again to bring a baby to term, that first miscarried fetus, which the narrator calls “the fingerling,” becomes conscious in his father’s body. This toddler incubus then turns his father against his mother and drives him on a surreal and bloody ordeal that lasts for the rest of the novel.
The narrator’s dark night of the soul takes him searching through ever-expanding subterranean structures that would give Steven Millhauser nightmares. Images of fire and ash and a world laid waste recur throughout like a version of “The Road” retold by St. John of Patmos. That bear from the opening line comes roaring back — a mangy, furious creature desperate to reclaim its own lost offspring. And several chapters dive into the saltwater lake where a squid lurks, spawning a vast collection of children.
Bell is doing fascinating, unnerving things here in his exploration of the most painful aspects of family life. This is the Oedipal complex flipped on its head — the father’s shameful dread of the son taking his wife. As a vision of parenting — particularly, the bitterness of failed fatherhood and the latent fear of women’s creative power — it’s a provocative piece of work.
But like its title, “In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods” runs on longer than it should. (In an interview with Ploughshares, Bell confessed that there was a “version of the novel that was at least 200 pages longer than the final book and much less reader-friendly,” which is, frankly, terrifying.) One confrontation with a rotting, angry bear is enough. All these descents through burned-out rooms begin to blur together. That endless bickering with the ingested fetus — “the fingerling” — sags from disturbing to merely annoying. And despite the story’s dalliance with mythical and biblical archetypes, it passeth all understanding. I thought I had a pretty firm grasp on the meaning of “the other moon” and “the squid” and “the bear,” but when “the man” became “the squid,” I began to feel like a Bear of Very Little Brain. Bell has claimed these elements are not allegorical. “The bear is just a bear,” he says, but that’s either disingenuous or he’s hiking in very different woods from the ones I’ve been in.
His publisher, Soho Press, is very high on this book — it sent at least seven copies to my office. For more than 25 years, Soho has been publishing sophisticated work that other New York houses wouldn’t touch. In 2011, for instance, it released a fantastic novel by Alex Shakar called “Luminarium” that included passages that were sometimes just as demanding and surreal as those found in Bell’s novel, and I’m delighted that such books can find a publisher and readers who will appreciate them. But I worry that “The Lake and the Woods” is not just difficult; it’s overwritten. The author has substituted a series of symbolic poses for effective articulation, assuming that repetition will generate emotional power. The justly celebrated poetry of his prose uses such a small palette that we learn his brush strokes fairly early. Eventually, his ideas are buried in the house upon the dirt between the lake and the woods by the bear and the squid and the fingerling and the moon and the cave and the stars and . . .
Well, you get the idea.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.