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.

A belated link:

Last November, my review of Julie Doxsee’s book of poems, Objects for a Fog Death, appeared here and I never linked to the pages. The review appears Gently Read Literature, a nicely put together online magazine put out by Daniel Casey. Much goodness is found within its digital pages. I can’t seem to get the embed codes to work correctly, but here is the link:¬†

Oh, Walking Dead #Plotholes, You Slay Me…

…let me count the ways…

I’m late to the Walking Dead Party on season two. A few days ago, I watched the season opener. Here are some thoughts:

1). Monologue on top of the building to start the show. Bye buddy. We’re leaving Atlanta. How’d you get away from the exploding CDC? Why’d you go back to the city? Why’d you climb to the top of the building? Where were the other people? Did they okay the return so that you could call your imaginary buddy and say goodbye? Stay safe, good buddy. Stay safe.

2). The Cars People! The Cars! They are still driving the same shitty cars! It drives me crazy that they drive around in that stupid ancient Winnebago. And that Jeep! At one point, they push a perfectly good Ford Explorer off the road into a ditch. SO THAT THEY CAN GET THEIR CRAPPY JEEP FURTHER DOWN THE ROAD! TAKE THE FORD, YOU IDIOTS!

3). Okay, so they come across a five hundred car pile up in the middle of nowhere. That could happen, I guess. I suppose people were all driving bumper to bumper and when the first car suddenly burst into “zombie,” all the other cars just rammed right into each other. Or, a few cars had a zombie “incidents” and all the other cars came blazing down the highway and slammed into the other wrecked cars. I suppose it could happen, that everyone could totally not be paying attention that way.

4). Worse still, they argue about whether or not they should take things from the cars. Then one guy finds a water truck and wastes an entire five gallon bucket of water for no good reason. The old guy climbs on top of his Winnebago to look for zombies. Good idea. Smart. As far as the eye can see: NO ZOMBIES. It’s a long straight road. He’s scanning North, South, East, West. WITH BINOCULARS. Big binoculars. He should be able to see forever! Suddenly, out of nowhere, a zombie. That’s understandable. It’s a zombie show, after all. But then there’s another. And then two hundred or so. OUT OF NOWHERE. Where’d they come from? Where are they going? Why don’t they smell the humans? The living characters hide beneath cars and no zombie smells them. One zombie (a pretty scary looking one… I should give props where they are due) walks into the Winnebago and finds the one person hiding inside. The rest of the folks stay under the cars. UNDER ¬†CARS! The hungry, hungry zombies can’t find the people outside, but put one scairdy cat blonde inside an RV bathroom and a zombie will find her every time. I reckon.

5). I have to lump some of these together: one girl gets freaked out and chased. Now they zombies are running. Running zombies. Which are they people? Stumblers or runners? The two worlds cannot co-exist, right? The sheriff saves her by drawing off the zombies but dooms her by sending her off on her own to find her way back. Ultimately, he hacks open a dead-zombie stomach to see what it has eaten. Somehow, the zombie has swallowed a bone that is identifiable as a varmit, not a girl. Meanwhile, no one is worried that two men have dug around inside a zombie. I’m still not clear on why that won’t infect you. Is it the actual bite that is the issue? Do the teeth carry the virus? Is it something about zombie dental hygiene? Too many loose threads. Can’t the virus enter through a hangnail if you’re digging around in zombie guts? Later, they come upon a dead man in a tent. Apparently, he reeks pretty bad, but the nylon of the tent holds the stench away. Once they open the tent, however, they’re bowled over by the smell of the decomposing body. Then they hear church bells and dash over to a church in the middle of nowhere that has three zombies in wedding outfits sitting inside. Why? Why? Why? Why are the zombies sitting there? It’s not a plot-hole, necessarily, but it’s as if the writers said: “Okay, let’s drop wedding zombies in here. That’ll be cool.” It simply doesn’t do anything for the story. But once they dispatch those undead, the real boredom starts.

6). Prayer. In the last half hour of the show, there’s a whole lot of praying. Praying out loud, too. In front of an audience. BOR-ING. Hanging out in the church with the chunked up zombies all over the floor, just praying and praying to the gigantic Jesus. I kept hoping that Jesus would climb down off the cross and demand their brains. Finally, the sheriff–despite the dire urgency of the search (night is coming and the girl is out there….ALONE) decides he needs to go in and talk to Jesus too. His prayer is long and windy. He asks for a sign. Later, in the woods, he sees a deer. Everyone knows that deer are signs from baby Jesus himself. Pffftttt.

I’ve decided, for better or worse, that I can’t watch anymore of this show. The hype is unbelievable, and many people I know love it, but the characters all seem like idiots and the writing is simply too inconsistent for me to devote my time to it. I’m not a tv snob–not everything has to be The Wire–but life is too short to spend even a second more annoyed at what is happening on the screen.

A little note on Bradford Morrow’s fine new book…

I’ve just finished Bradford Morrow’s book, The Diviner’s Tale. It’s a wonderful read. Literary–mystery–supernatural–suspense thriller: it’s the rare book that can unify the sometimes very disparate elements of those genres, but The Diviner’s Tale does an excellent job. I don’t think of this as a genre work in the traditional sense, but it certainly uses conventions of different genres as it weaves its way towards its very satisfying end. Ultimately, it proves the “genre” tag to be a sham. It’s a rousing story containing a mystery, but the mystery is only a part of the whole. It isn’t “about” the mystery so much as it is about the characters that surround the mystery. The main character (Cass) has nearly supernatural intuition, and comes from a long line of “diviners”–people who dowse for water. Cass has always divined more than just water. What really elevates this book into top-notch page-turning literary quality fiction is the absolutely beautiful/spooky journey that Cass undergoes as she traverses both her past (family, loss, grief, fear, love, childhood trauma) and her present (missing children, lurking predators, sick father, single-motherhood). Ultimately, it’s a story about whether or not Cass can learn to trust her inherited intuition. Her whole life, she’s doubted herself, thought of herself as a fraud–but her visions/divinations demand attention and in some ways, her visions debunk her doubt, but it’s a tough thing for a character to admit. The book has classic spine chilling moments–I won’t tell you at what point they arise–and the eerie quality of the supernatural moments works so well because Morrow provides a concrete foundation of detail and landscape–it never spins into the abstract. Pay special attention to the way he utilizes fog and shadow and the unexpected appearance of people who may or may not be of this world. Highly recommended.

Julie Doxsee’s “Objects for a Fog Death”

A magical book (in the truest dark and layered and mysterious sense of the word–not in the saw-the-lady-in-half sense of the word, although that might work too). A concise book with sentences that snake surprisingly through multiple couplets and end up in unexpected places. Take this line from “Architecture” for instance:

If lightning is just more
heat, where is the cyclone

to entwine us until our
veins take down all

the trees between here
& seven days ago?

Doxsee writes in a way that feels like you are actually seeing the poems through fog–they aren’t muddy or unclear or hazy by way of craft, it’s not that sort of fog–but there always seems to be something swirling up and around the objects at the heart of her poems, or up and around the poet, or maybe the reader. The poems ask a lot of me–they required my vision, too. Or perhaps the fog is a constant and maybe the objects are swaying. Either way, there is lots of movement, and either way you end up thinking you are watching one thing before you realize that you have been looking at something different all along. In “Kitchen Tour” she writes:

Those are
old teeth marks

in the water from
when I bit

all the ice
cubes in half.

The poems are told in a sort of gloaming. That time of night when everything is floaty. It did take me a few poems to become comfortable in Doxsee’s universe–that doorway into her poems required a certain patience to open, but to me that is a good thing. There are a lot of easily opened doors. A like a door that requires a bit of focused attention, a bit of study. Because once that door is open? It doesn’t close. I can’t go back. Once I stopped trying to fan away the fog, and just dove into Doxsee’s surprising lines, vision be damned, I felt both lured further and sorry to turn the page on the last poem. Toward the end of the book, she writes, in a poem titled “Dear Sparrow”:


pretend my door
is your skyload

of leaves, a new
kind of air

you sail.

That pretty much describes it better than I ever could. I recommend the book, especially if you are looking for a new kind of air.