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Reading Like a Writer: Titles and "In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods"

Posted on Fri, May 23 2014 9:00 am by Allison Wyss

One of the ways I'm a bad reader is that I don't pay much attention to titles. I'm more likely to remember "that book about the…" When no one knows what I'm talking about, I run to look up the title. Then I promptly forget it.

Many titles seem to be of a different voice than that inside the book and that tends to make them less memorable to me. I remember the voice of the narrator—not the outside one who names the story.

Every once in a while, however, a title insists that it's part of the book itself. Matt Bell's strangely long title In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods does that for me. I want to understand it.

First, the nouns. They're simple—house, lake, dirt, woods. They're vague, right? We don't know what kind of house or woods or lake or dirt. No description of them, no specificity. Yet they still make an image because they're so concrete. They're tangible things that can be seen and touched and smelled.

The simplicity of the nouns is emphasized by the short, one-syllable words. Bell has not chosen to call the house a cabin or the woods a forest. Only the prepositions take longer than a beat to pronounce.

Does the length of the prepositions give them more weight? Or indicate they're more important than the nouns? Upon. Between. They take longer to say, but do we actually pronounce them? Even silently? Or do we skip them? House Dirt Lake Woods. It creates a quick picture, but much of the meaning is lost.

Like titles (at least for me), prepositions are often skimmed, forgotten. But they're really important because they show relationships—between people, objects, and ideas.

Think what would happen to "In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods" if you messed around with those prepositions. "At the House under the Dirt because of the Lake in the Woods." Now the lake is in the woods instead of beside it, the house has been buried, and it's the lake that's causing the commotion. You can't change one preposition without seriously altering the meaning of the title.

The specificity of their positioning, as indicated by the prepositions, even makes the nouns stronger. Not any house—the house on the dirt. Not any dirt—the dirt between the lake and the woods. (Note that a comma would put the house between lake and the woods instead of the dirt—but there is no comma.)

One of the things this title does, then, is warn us to pay attention to spatial relationships. Among other things, the book is very much about the evolution and realignment of characters, objects, and places. Of a husband, a wife, a child. Of the rooms of a house. Of the way people love and betray each other. Of how it all gets twisted. The title teaches us to watch for the way the central relationship mutates, how motherhood and fatherhood change meanings, how the house grows bigger from the inside.

All these relationships! I only meant to talk about the one between the title and the story. But of course it's related.

As I mentioned earlier, titles seem to fall off when they lack consequential ties to the book.

"In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods" is not a sentence or even half a sentence. There are four nouns but no subject and no predicate. Grammatically, the words ought to be followed by a comma and then a subject and predicate. "In the house upon the dirt between the lake and the woods, someone did something." So even with all those words, the title is just an opening clause.

It's odd, actually, how the word "in" makes the phrase less complete rather than more. "The House Upon…" makes our attention stop on that house. The addition of "in" makes us ask what it is that happens in the house. Because titles are very frequently made of just subjects (Moby Dick, Duplex, Threats), dropping "in" would make this title feel more solid, less like a fragment.

For this reason, I tend to read the title as the opening clause for the entire novel, appending it to the beginning of just about everything that happens. Fragments are fascinating that way. They start a trajectory then cut short as your mind leaps to follow it. This leap takes us into the book.

So, grammatically, this title is linked to the actual story. What about thematically?

Early on, the narrator explains that the whole world is made of just the elements in the title. Yet, as the novel progresses, the narrator understands there are more elements in the world, more complexity than he has prepared for.

"we learned him in the ways of the first four elements, dirt and house and lake and woods… that those four aspects were all we were—but then my wife said there was another, a fifth, and that this element was called mother… then as I withdrew I came as well to discern elements previously unknown."

The title sets us up for this exquisite truth of the book. As opening clause, it tricks us into thinking there are just four elements. Then, along with the narrator, we learn that there are more. The additions to this world, a world which first appeared stable, are frightening.

The ideas of the book don't confirm the title. Instead they explode it, complicate it, prove it incorrect. That relationship is powerful and really makes this odd, long title stick to the book. And in my mind.


Which titles have really stuck with you? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.

Allison Wyss is teaching "Reading Like a Writer: The Best Book Club Ever" this summer at the Loft. She earned her MFA from the University of Maryland. She has also studied creative writing at Vanderbilt University, Breadloaf Writer's Conference, and Grub Street Independent Writing Center. Her stories have appeared or will appear in [Pank] Magazine, Metazen, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Golden Key, and The Southeast Review.