Most writers complain of an affliction that strikes when they get too tired or they've written too much in a day, or when they're not writing about something they care about: They fall into The Zone, a place where characters stop doing things that feel normal, when locations unmoor from the earth and float around and change shape, when the writing becomes more about the writing itself than a person or place or thing. Matt Bell's novel In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (Soho, $25)—hereafter, for the sake of my aching word count, referred to as House—reads like it takes place entirely in The Zone.
House begins, "Beneath the unscrolling story of new sun and stars and then-lonely moon," when the narrator's wife "began to sing some new possessions into the interior of our house." Physics don't work as you'd expect them to, characters are never named, and no other entirely human characters besides these two will come onto the scene for the rest of the book's 312 pages. The number of concrete things is slim: We have a house, though the interiors are always shifting. Outside the house are woods and a lake, where our protagonist hunts and fishes. Somewhere in the woods, there's a bear lurking around.
And the protagonist's wife fades in and out of attention; she becomes pregnant, and then something bad happens and her grief manipulates their world, becomes solid and puts distance between them. House feels like a Tolkien epic set inside Plato's cave written by Carl Jung, and it's just as frustrating and mind-boggling and satisfying as you'd expect a book with that description to be.
At some points, it appears to be about the relationship between a man and a woman, and how that relationship changes when they make the impossible decision to bring a third life, something new, into the world. But at other points, the book seems to lose a plot entirely, and it becomes about nothing other than language.
A few chapters early and late in House annoy more than charm with their mantra-like repetition, but Bell's language is for the most part enticing. It guides us through passages like this one, when our protagonist travels through his house and finds rooms filled with strange newness:
Some held objects obvious in purposed pairings—the crib and the cradle, the bottle and the blanket—but others less so: In one room, I saw the death of a cougar but not the cougar itself; in another, the moltings of a thousand butterflies; and then a single giant specimen of the same species, bigger than any I'd seen, first flapping slowly about the room, then becoming more and more agitated as it failed to find its escape, thrashing its iridescent body against the walls of its cell until its magnificent wings were broken.
If you crave naturalism, you should run, far away. But if beautiful, haunting language is what you want most, welcome to The Zone.