So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory. –Moby Dick, Chapter 45.
My wife gave birth to our son back in June which has made the past few months joyful, stressful, and busy, and tired and sleepy, and happy and grumpy–We run the gamut of dwarfish emotions, even “Doc” if by that we mean doctors, doctor’s bills and the health care system in the USA–It was difficult to read and write with my working happening simultaneously to this overwhelming life event– I found the time to flip through a few comic books, but nothing really dense or complex. Gone are those summers of wading through Marx and this or that volume of Capital word after word after word.
I did read a book review in the Washington Post back in June, however, about a new novel titled In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. It was a rave from what I remember, so I set about trying to find this book and read it. What excited me about the book was a world the reviewer described in which a husband and wife are trying to have a child, but continue to fail– The wife miscarries several times and gradually the couple and narrative descend into primal epic archetypes and things get weird– “Okay”, I thought to myself. This could be a fine way for my mind to grapple with the “major life issues” of fertility and family that I have been undergoing this summer.
There is a primal place in our brains that lies dormant perhaps until we have a child in front of us that is our own, or even a child that is yours to care for–Something like a nurturing instinct must be hard-wired in our brains–and these parental muscles have been there waiting for the moment when they can finally flex their sinews and go about the holding and nurturing and nursing and mothering– But what is particularly shocking is how hidden these muscles perhaps were and how quickly they grow strong, like an appendage that you didn’t know you had: “Where did this tail come from? I have never seen it, but now at this moment it is so useful, so needed; it was always a part of me?”
Perhaps this is true, although many profess a strong dislike of children and procreation and the Oedipal family structure altogether. It’s really a kind of dividing line in urban biopolitics, whether one chooses to procreate and what sort of lifestyle and political ramifications that will precipitate from this “traditional” decision. Perhaps I make my case too strongly that there is a sort of innate nurturing muscle, but what is the baby’s cry but grating and annoying? And precisely that, programmed as a precisely human anguish that calls on our instinct to stop it– Stop the baby from crying. “Just calm the child” as the song goes in Into the Woods. This is the negation-as-incantation of the mothering instinct, the cry which rakes across our ear drums and finds a hidden wormhole through our brain to a most sensitive secret place. “Do something!”– the negation is negated. A baby’s cry, or the special pathway through our mind through which only it fits, a hidden keyhole that is only found when that particularly angular and jagged key enters and twists and twists, unlatches a lock that has lain dormant, lightly rusted shut for decades. This is a now-opened part of my brain, I think it might be in the lower right side, below and behind my ear somewhat–
The other negation of the mothering instinct is of course the inability to have children when one wants them, which is the source of the plot of the novel in question. This is a sort of pain that wounds deeply and perhaps requires the sort of archetypal (Jungian?) artistic response this novel provides. Man. Woman. House. Dirt. Lake. Woods. Bear. Ghost. Black. Squid. As I read this book I kept on seeing an animated version of the story painted before my eyes. Washed out colors, a sad animated film drawn somewhere between the style of the animated Watership Down and some contemporary depressed indie animator. Or maybe what I was seeing was the video game version? We are definitely not in the “real” world in this novel, although that “real world” is referred to several times as a distant capital with large buildings. The couple, husband and wife chose to not live there and instead live In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. This world has the ahistorical feel of your average video game in which the hero will encounter a limited set of creatures in a limited set of landscapes– The landscape in the background is not detailed or even alive, similar to those static video game backdrops that your character runs against as he encounters various different obstacles or enemies. (I’m talking video games from the 1980s and early 1990s– I’m aware that video games have approached a near-cinematic level of detail .)
The author sticks to this palate with such tenacity that I found the novel difficult to read at times. Instead it was easier to dream up what “real” life scenario impelled him to write this novel in the first place? There is so much pain and so much raw feeling and so much hurt that cannot describe itself but only act–Only “sing”, or “dig” or trap, or bury–a world of action. One is lead to not only attempt to decipher the characters’ inner worlds as expressed in different motor activities and their interaction with the limited built environment, but also attempt to decipher the trauma the author has experienced in the narrative that he weaves. Clearly this is a novel about the inability of a married man and women to have a child and the psychological nightmare this pain engenders. If there is a part of our brain and body that is hard-wired to mother and care for a child, the awareness and desire to live this ability coupled with an inability to create the child will create an acute and unnameable depression. The strength of this book is that this is probably the only way this pain and personal biological history could be told– In the thick smoke of trauma time and language intersect–a direct narration of the event, let me tell you my story, this also folds back on time and the pain and blackness return, language fails and words even taste like death or the fear of the closeness of death.
There are many techniques to attempt to dramatize the impossible trauma. My personal evolution over the past decade has led me further and further away from narratives that transcendentalize history and the material human community. Am I just “into” realism? Have I read too much Balzac? How boring is that? I thought that realist art forms were played out and that only the avant-garde theater artists could save us? Have I read too much Marx? Am I a fetishist for the base over the superstructure? All your base are belong to us? Why can’t I simply accept this fable as a modern fairy tale, allow the variables to play out in my mind on their own terms without constantly trying to find a real-world referent or secret decoder ring that will allow each of these archetypal humans or animals or hybrids to find a workable definition beyond the tautological? Perhaps I am too close to the subject matter at hand to have read this novel with a relaxed mind. I’m sure Matt Bell would have a good explanation as he seems to be a smart enough writer, but I can’t believe that this is a moment for fantasy unrooted from history– The point of the man and woman going to the house upon the dirt between the lake and the woods is precisely to find that ahistorical landscape. This is purposeful, to create a programmed and coded ahistorical deracinated topos on which two procreating individuals can meditate on fertility and its negation. Although this world and its primal encounters is what the trauma feels like, we have lost any referent or pathway back to our own human history and its vicissitudes.
Fertility is not a constant, but a historically conditioned variable. Reliable birth control is a very very recent historical phenomenon whose impact on human interaction, sexuality, capitalism is still being tested and discovered. Fertility drugs have also changed the landscape of 21st century procreation, increasing the number of fraternal twins and triplets, not to mention allowing women to give birth at an older age. There is also the wonderful world of same-sex couples, lesbians having children, gay men adopting or finding a surrogate mother to give birth to their children. All of these mostly contemporary problems also are attached to historical conundrums and social forms that are in constant flux. We are far far away from a world in which each sex is as fixed as a constellation. The stars are falling and melting, like the moon that crashes down “bursting into some innumerable flock of missiles” in this novel.
I crave the historicity of Moby Dick — Melville knew that as he was approaching fundamental historical questions and almost-archetypal forms that his narrative required a contemporary material reality like none other. A good third of that novel is almost scientific, tying us to the lived world and the lived knowledge of this world. In this way Melville avoids “a hideous and intolerable allegory”. Essentializing, mythifying and uprooting characters from a concrete historical experience smooths over our distinctive wrinkles and fingerprints, wishes away the gravity of writing in a historical moment and sucks the air out of art.