In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods: 2013 Book #25

5 of 5 stars
I went into this book with high expectations, given how much I liked Bell’s prior collection, Cataclysm Baby, stories set in a universe familiar to In the House Upon the Dirt in Between the Lake and the Woods.

It met all of my expectations. Bell seems to have settled into the style he explored in Wolf Parts and polished in Cataclysm Baby. Sentences packed densely with symbolism and meaning, each word carefully hand-picked to suit. Paragraphs that echo each other, each one subtle and quiet on their own, but that rise to form, as one advance reviewer noted, the beat of “…a powerful heart you can hear thumping miles away.” Reading a story by this author is like boarding a locomotive and not knowing the destination. For a time, you quietly rumble along, wondering where it’ll take you. By the time you recognize the trunks of the murky, enchanted forest he’s drawn you to, the ride is irreversible and you have no choice but delve deep into the dark heart of the woods.

The prose is beautiful, as I said before, each word seems carefully hand-chosen to project the exact atmosphere and pathos of this unflinching alternate reality where there is nothing but the narrator and the elements he knows. For anyone who has had children or has struggled to have children, this novel is a fantastic metaphor for the experience of marriage and parentage. The loss of a child and the labyrinth it leads both mother and father down is pitch-perfect.

There’s little to not like about this book. You should know going in that this is dense literature. But, it toes the line expertly between accessible and the stuff studied and analyzed thoroughly in academia. It is a book to be read slowly, savored. One where if the territory feels strange, unfamiliar and unclear, it is to be enjoyed.

Artifice Magazine – Issue 3: 2013 Book #24

This edition was on the weaker side for me, in terms of lit. journals / anthologies – probably because experimental fiction/poetry isn’t my preference. There were some nice surprises in here – specifically Matt Bell’s story, which rather than being a traditional short, ran along the bottom of every page like a news ticker, and was amalgamated from lines within the book and other sources of information. I really enjoyed just simply re-reading the book in a new way, and he included a lot of lines that resonated with me when I’d read through the collection the first time through.

Some of the other standouts included Addam Jest’s The Beautiful Necessity and Brian Oilu’s set of three short fictions. Most of the rest just didn’t speak to me because the breaking of structure and form got in the way of me feeling or in some cases even comprehending what the author was trying to communicate. That said, if you’re a fan of experimental fiction, you’ll probably want to check this out.

Theory of Remainders: 2013 Book #23

Theory of Remainders is a phenomenal tale about the consuming nature of loss. It explores the tried and true story of a child being murdered and the parent or emotionally invested detective uncovering the truth in a new way, by setting the actual crime fourteen years in the past and examining the effects place and time have on the protagonist, Phillip Adler. The novel does a great job using subtle cues to show how inescapable something as traumatic as losing a child is. At one point, Adler attempts to leave the Normandy region multiple times, each time being drawn back inexplicably because he’s daughter’s body has yet to be found. In fact, the entire trip to France is prompted by an inability to resolve the past, and the desire to have everything in its right place.

It’s a very human story, in that Adler’s relationships with his ex-wife, her husband, their daughter who bears a heartbreaking resemblence to his own daughter, their extended family and the inhabitants of the town he used to live in. But the story of discovering his daughter’s body, even though the killer has been found and committed in a mental institution is executed well and provides plenty of twists and turns without feeling contrived.

Carpenter’s use of language and knowledge of the tension between American and French culture is also a strength of the book, truly transporting you to a region infamous for it’s involvement with World War II. It’s easy to forget that a people and their communities inhabit this place.

Cryptonomicon: 2013 Book #22

Some books take a little more effort to chew through, and I felt like Cryptonomicon was definitely one of them. Aside from keeping up with all the threads from three separate narratives taking place over the course of World War 2 era battlefronts and the South Pacific in the late 20th century, you’ve also got the super-dense business of cryptology to understand. Stephenson was hit or miss with me in explaining some of the complex math behind cryptosystems. Sometimes, he took pages to delve into the particulars and illustrate the concepts using metaphors, and it worked extremely well. I was not only interested, but felt smarter and understood the stakes in the books better. In other scenes, it was too dense or obtuse and bogged down the narrative.

That aside, I enjoyed reading the book, if only for Stephenson’s fantastic descriptions of action. There are quite a few laugh out loud moments in the book, in which he describes something in a way that instantly flashes a perfect picture of what he was trying to communicate, and done in a way that not many authors have a gift for. Equally as humorous is the way all of his solitary, often socially inept characters collide and maneuver around each other – all math nerds and computer geeks thrust into a critical role in war, a space typically reserved for the brave and physically strong.

The biggest thing that didn’t work for me in this book was the pacing – there were many sections of the book that felt extremely slow and drawn out, Stephenson probably could have achieved a story that resonated just as well, if not more so, with a book easily a third less in length. I found myself not caring what happened in the book or what happened to the characters for long stretches of time before I’d hit another section that felt engrossing.