Primal: Matt Bell’s Novel #reading #amreading

tumblr_inline_mm1njbUVDJ1r4zpe9I’m not a reviewer of books, merely a reader. I read carefully, of course, as someone who writes must read. But I’ve never been much of a reviewer. For the most part, I don’t really read a lot of reviews either. I tend to find new books through recommendations and quite often, through acquaintances. That’s how I found Matt Bell’s new book In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. I know Matt through Facebook and Twitter. I’ve met him once for a few moments at the Dzanc table at the AWP conference. I heard about his new book through social media. And then my friend Michele Filgate–a writer’s champion like no other–tweeted one day that Matt’s new book, his first novel, was stunning. Since then, I’ve seen easily a dozen reviews about the work. Nearly all of them are deserved raves. When I finished reading the novel myself, I wanted to write something, but what can a non-reviewing reader write about a book that hasn’t already been said in a dozen or more reviews by qualified reviewers? Here’s what I stumbled onto:

Clark’s Top Ten Thoughts on Matt Bell’s first novel ITHUTDBTLATW:

  1. When I pick up a book, I want to have my socks not off. When I finished ITHUTDBTLATW, my socks had been obliterated.
  2. Here is a sentence from early in the book: By the time the foundling began to sing my wife’s simplest songs I had learned to restrain the fingerling, but always he watched for his chances, and soon all my angers were ulcered inside me, and one by one the fingerling sought their increased company, in whatever pits they burned their slow language. Read that aloud. Read it slowly. You MUST read it slowly.
  3. Speaking of reading slowly. Is anyone reading slowly any more? Stop speed reading, people. I keep entering that Goodreads contest where you challenge yourself to read a certain number of books each year. I can never keep up with my own expectations. It’s too much pressure. I read slow. Get over it. How can you not want to read a book like Matt Bell’s ITHUTDBTLATW slowly? If you read this book and you read it quickly, you didn’t read it.
  4. I’ve never read anything quite like this book. Each review I’ve seen of Matt’s book tries to reference a few other books like it. There are no books like it. I tried to think of a book like it. I failed. There is a fantastic book by Stanley Crawford titled The Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine born from the same unreachable cosmos, but it is nothing like Matt’s book.
  5. With apologies to Faulkner, this may be the best piece of American fiction ever written about a bear. But the book isn’t really about a bear. Nor is the bear always a…oh, just go read it. Trying to explain it takes the magic away.
  6. Many people use the word mythic or myth when writing about this book. I think that is the wrong word to use.
  7. Many people have called the prose lyric, too. Lyric seems too small a word. I was trying to find a word that was closer to “music” but failed. Music might be the right word. Certainly, the language concerns songs and singing. Certainly, the prose has it’s own lyricism. But none of those words really fit.
  8. I’m by no means a Carl Jung scholar, but I’ve read his book Man and His Symbols. In that book, written for the lay-person, he says that there are certain symbols that bubble up from man’s unconscious. Not his subconscious. Deeper than that. Further away than any piddly ol’ subconscious. Way down deep in the ooze. The primordial soup. Jung says those images appear to us in our dreams. That idea fits Matt Bell’s novel better than myth. Myths are only as old as man. ITHUTDBTLATW, while about the realities of the flesh, comes from a place before man. Before our stories.
  9. There is no way a review or a blog post can adequately summarize this book for you. If you see someone try, run the other direction. I went into this book with only the barest hint of an idea about the path the story would take. And that hint was shattered in the first ten pages. After that, I was just along for the ride.
  10. Primal. That’ the right word. Not mythic or lyric or post-post or meta or absurdist or magically realistic. None of those lit-class words fit. It’s primal, before the dawn stuff.
  11. It’s haunting, too. And beautiful. As violent and fierce as some of the sections are, there is also just a lot of beauty. The whole book is beautiful. The last fifty pages are so beautiful it will hurt your feelings.
  12. I talk to my writing students all the time about taking risks and following their creative paths wherever they lead. I can think of no better example of such a thing happening as Matt Bell’s novel. He followed his imagination and recorded this primal music. That makes it sound like it poured out of him in one sitting. I know that’s not the case. I know he worked his ass off getting this book right, getting the words and sentences right. He worked so hard on this book that it looks like he never had to work on it.
  13. I closed the book and the first thought that ran through my head: I want to write better stories. I don’t want to do what Matt’s done, but his book made me want to make strong art.
  14. I don’t know if this book is for every reader, but it’s for me. I like that it’s difficult and rewarding and that I can’t stop thinking about the final moments. I’m going to tell everyone about it. Matt’s an incredibly nice person and a pretty tireless citizen in the writing community. He deserves all the good things being said about him. This work deserves all the good things people are saying about it. Go read it. But read it slowly. Who cares if it takes you, like it did me, three weeks. Sometimes I read the same page two or three times. It’s that damn good.
  15. Thank you, Matt Bell, for this book.
  16. And yes, I know this was only supposed to be a top ten list. Sue me.
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