Thursday, April 28, 2016
Book 31: Even though I loved this book very much I had to keep looking up the name to remember how it went each time I talked about the book.
There are a few books I've read that I think are not like any other book, or like each other. A Short Sharp Shock was one. 100 Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses was another. Foucault's Pendulum, and The Rathbones were a couple of them. When you happen on one of these books, it's like turning over a rock or standing on your head and looking at your backyard or driving through a thunderstorm or maybe all three of those things at once: books like this reveal something, look at things differently, attack everything around you violently even as you sit, sheltered, away from the maelstrom.
When I was a kid, when I was like 14, I had a nightmare. I remember it now, more than three decades later. In the nightmare, I was running down a snowy hill, through pine trees. The snow wasn't deep; it was only up to my ankles, and served more as a slight impediment and a way of blurring out the scene. I kept running and running . It wasn't one of those dreams where you can't move or you never get anyway. Quite the opposite: I ran fast, and a long way, looking over my shoulder all the time to try to see whoever was chasing me. At one point, though, just as I turned back to look where I was heading, a man in a ski mask leaped out from behind a tree and stabbed me in the side.
I woke up, instantly. I didn't feel scared. I wasn't breathing heavily, or sweating, and hadn't screamed. I was just, instantly, and completely, awake. I went down the hall to the bathroom to get a drink of water, and turned on the light. It was only then that I realized I was holding my hand over my side, right where I'd been stabbed, in the dream. I kept looking at my hand in the mirror, telling myself it was okay to take my hand off, that it had only been a dream, but I didn't, for a long time, and then when I finally did move my hand, and saw only unbroken skin, I let out a huge breath: I'd been holding my breath as I wondered what I would do.
That dream remains crystal clear to me even now, an unreal experience that I can recall every detail of, right down to exactly where I held my hand.
In the way a dream like that can stick with you and taunt you with what your subconscious is thinking about, in the all the subtle ways a completely fictional experience can shape your perceptions of yourself and your world: that is how In The House... affected me.
It's not an easy book to read, In The House... and not a comforting one. But I'm glad I read it. I don't know that I'd ever read it again; in that way the book is like my visit to the Holocaust Museum: an experience I feel like I should have, but not one I'd want to repeat.
All that said, it is an excellent excellent book. It is a book that I think deserves to be far more widely known than it is already, because people should know that storytelling this powerful and unsettling exists. It's a book that opens up a new possible.
The plot of the book is sort of secondary, and doesn't do the book justice. In a nutshell, a man and a woman -- they're never named, although hints about the woman's name are given and made me think maybe I was right about this being, in part, a retelling of a bible story -- move to a wilderness area, between a lake and the woods. They plan to raise a family and live there alone, but events overtake them and the resultant story is both fantastic and terrible in its unfolding.
That mundane description, though, doesn't explain the poetry of the book, both in the language used (Matt Bell is a wonderful writer) and in the way the world acts around the man and the woman, and the way they act. The woman can sing things into existence, while the man, cruder, must build and hunt and trap. Their efforts to have a family eventually tear into their relationshp, causing the woman to wreak havoc with reality, while the man has run-ins with a bear and a monster in the lake.
From there, the story gets ever more compelling and more extraordinarily irrational. It would spoil too much to say what happens, but stars fall from the sky, there is a phenomenal showdown between the man and the various beasts, a descent into almost-literal madness, and the creation of whole new worlds within other worlds. It's amazing.
It's also very, very dark. It's like the Brothers Grimm decided to retell all the scariest stories humanity has ever come up with, or like Edgar Allan Poe's fever dream. It was a book that I read only in short sittings; after 30 or 45 minutes I had to come up for air and do something else for a while.
It's not a book for everyone. It's a real challenge, reading it, but each page is more compelling than the last. The story just kept getting better and better, more and more astonishing, and each time I thought okay we're on our way back down now things just escalated even more to greater heights... or depths, I guess, as large parts of the story take place underground in the 'deep house' or even lower, below a giant staircase that descends so far into the earth that time actually stops meaning anything for a while... until the story comes to an ending rather abruptly, in a way that makes perfect sense.
I think it's very much worth trying to read it. If you get two or three pages into it, you'll either not want to stop or will give it up right away; it's that kind of a book. It's totally worth it, though. I don't think I'll ever forget the bear, and the lake monster, and the children... oh man, the children! If you thought kids in movies like Children of the Corn or Goodnight Mommy were freaky, wait until you get to the part in this book where there are hundreds, if not more, children of varying shapes and sizes keeping the man from entering the woods and attacking each other and singing, each, a single note of a song over and over. Images like that will stay with me for a long, long time. Maybe forever. I can sit here and remember the arc of the story, the lake battle, the descent and subsequent ascent through the deep house, and feel a sort of dread. It's not a bad feeling in a sense: reading books like this is the modern equivalent of a Grimm story or Beowulf. It's a way of connecting to a more primal feeling within us, the subconscious that makes us who we are even when we don't understand why it is doing so. In digging up dreadful images and descrescendoes of terror, remorse, and guilt, a book like this reminds us of the darkness our lives could be, and makes you more grateful when you look up from it and realize you're not in a house made up of rooms each of which has one thing in it, and that one thing is a mockery of what life should be. No, you're in your own house where nature is not a terrifying set of half-dead animals rising from their graves, where children do not need to be sung into proper shapes. Reading this book is a journey into elemental forms of emotion that you surface from like a kid diving as far down as he can in a deep cold lake only to swim to the surface as quickly as he can to make sure the sun still exists and he can still breathe.
I don't think I'll ever forget it. I don't think it's the kind of book you can forget. I'm not sure I'd want to, though, even if I could.