It was a warm, humid night, the first of October, and Corey Marks, the school’s creative writing director, ushered in the new season by praising the 180 or so students for having found their way to the Business Leadership Building. It was off the beaten path for these mostly English majors, but it was good that they should venture outside the lately unairconditioned warrens of the Auditorium Building to see where their teachers’ raises went.
It is good that the university should have such a space to show off to visitors – a glass and brick structure of terrifically tall ceilings flooded with natural light, its cantilevered roof supported by pivoting buttresses, a central atrium surrounded by high-def lecture halls, offices, a stock trading room, storefronts – so that Mr. Bell did not have to remove his tweed jacket or mop his brow while reading from his just-published debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.
I got the idea that Mr. Bell is used to a little sweat on his brow. His writing, like his subjects, is dirtbound, subterranean, dark with blood and loss. He opened with Jack Gilbert’s poem Hunger, which begins, “Digging into the apple/with my thumbs./Scraping out the clogged nails/and digging deeper.”
The imagery is in the novel, too, in an underground maze or “deep house” that the narrator’s wife sang into being and where she displays the myriad things that her husband has forgotten. One room contains the wedding rings that had failed to bind the couple. “How I wished it had been different, that I had not walked away when I thought it would be easy to return,” he laments.
In his calculus, childbirth is apocalyptic; the passage in which the husband eats his stillborn son, the “fingerling” of his wife’s miscarriage, has haunted me since the moment I read it last week. Mr. Bell concurred in our Twitter exchange the day after his reading. “I found him haunting too, from the first time he showed up,” he wrote.
If you say the name of the novel aloud, the stacked prepositional phrases give you an idea of the cadence of Mr. Bell’s writing. The staccato rhythms seem more poem than prose, and they match his voice, a resonant timbre that held each line ending for a beat.
In his short story “Her Aeneid,” a mother-to-be imagines the baby in her womb as a changeling, “a string of potentialities” that evolves from a tumor-sized fetus to become, successively, a stone; a thunderstorm, a hurricane, tsunami; a bird, and then a bird of prey; a knife, a dagger, a broadsword, “dark and terrible.”
At last, the young one arrives, and the mother learns what all parents learn. The child is a stranger, a vortex of need.
“Some days,” the story ends, “no matter what she says, her baby cries, and cries, and cries.”