In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods
By Matt Bell
(Soho Press, Hardcover, 9781616952532, 312pp.)
Publication Date: June 18, 2013
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In this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife's beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.
This novel, from one of our most exciting young writers, is a powerful exploration of the limits of parenthood and marriage—and of what happens when a marriage’s success is measured solely by the children it produces, or else the sorrow that marks their absence.
Matt Bell's first story collection, How They Were Found, was published in 2010 by Keyhole Press, and was reviewed in The Believer, American Book Review, and Bookslut, among many other venues. In 2012, Cataclysm Baby, a novella, was published by Mud Luscious Press, with blurbs by Karen Russell, Lucy Corin, Lance Olsen, and Chris Bachelder. Bell's fiction has been anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories 2010, Best American Fantasy 2, and 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction by Younger Writers, and shortlisted in Best American Short Stories 2010 and the Pushcart Prize anthology. He serves as Senior Editor at Dzanc Books and teaches writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
July 2013 Indie Next Pick
Praise for In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods
“Onstage, it could be a densely allusive play by Sam Shepard or Thornton Wilder.... Mr. Bell has written a gripping, grisly tale of a husband’s descent into and ultimate emergence from some kind of personal hell.”
—The New York Times
“It's hard to imagine a book more difficult to pull off, but Bell proves as self-assured as he is audacious. His prose, which manages to be both mournful and propulsive, is undeniable.... Bell's novel isn't just a joy to read, it's also one of the smartest meditations on the subjects of love, family and marriage in recent years.... the novel is a monument to the uniqueness of every relationship, the possibility that love itself can make the world better, though of course it's never easy.”
"Somber, incantatory sentences to hold you within [Bell's] dreamlike creation.... This unique book leaves you with the haunting lesson that even if you renounce and cast away your loved ones, you can never disown the memory of your deeds."
—The Wall Street Journal
"A blood-soaked fable... With this debut novel, Matt Bell [reworks] myths, rituals and fictions into something that can hold his visceral, primal vision. In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods provides us with a new, unstable literary element, something scavenged from the old, something bright and wet and vital.”
—The Globe and Mail
“For readers weary of literary fiction that dutifully obeys the laws of nature, here’s a story that stirs the Brothers Grimm and Salvador Dali with its claws.... as gorgeous as it is devastating.”
—The Washington Post
“In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is an extraordinary achievement, telling a most ancient story in a way that feels uncannily new."
—The Boston Globe
"A big, slinking, dangerous fairy tale, the kind with gleaming fangs and blood around the muzzle and a powerful heart you can hear thumping from miles away. The story's ferocity is matched by Matt Bell's glorious sentences: sinuous and darkly magical, they are taproots of the strange."
—Lauren Groff, New York Times bestselling author of Arcadia
"This is a fiercely original book—at once intimate and epic, visceral and philosophical—that sent me scurrying for adjectives, for precedents, for cover. Matt Bell commands the page with bold, vigorous prose and may well have invented the pulse-pounding novel of ideas."
—Jess Walter, National Book Award Finalist and author of Beautiful Ruins and We Live In Water
"Matt Bell does not write sentences—he writes spells. He is not a novelist—he is a mystic. This book, which will grip you in an otherworldly trance, reads like something divined from tea leaves or translated from a charcoal cipher on a cave wall."
—Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon and The Wilding
—Charles Yu, author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
"I have never come across a book that is so close to a dream state, with all the wildness and wonder and transfiguration that implies."
—Emily Temple, Flavorwire Literary Editor
"Bell has crafted a terrifying and entirely spell-binding story about what it means to be a husband, a father, and, more simply, a man."
—The Daily Beast
"Bell puts the fable in fabulism.... This spare, devastating novel... is as beautiful as it is ruinous. A tragedy of fantastic proportions, the book’s musical, often idiosyncratic prose will carry its readers into an unfamiliar but unforgettable world."
—Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW
"A deeply affecting, wildly inventive fable on parenthood and loss."
“A time and space warp compounded — a treatise on marriage and its couplings, fertility and lack thereof, gender roles and selfishness, all scaled to dimensions that distort easily, and bent between a set of covers.... genre-bending innovation that bucks convention and pushes out into strange and haunting new places.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books
“Bell’s House Upon the Dirt is the type of novel that seems not only to invite a re-reading, but to encourage it as well. The book revels in its imaginative powers, and demonstrates that not only have the characters in Bell’s novel succeeded in fashioning a new universe from our everyday world, but Bell, as a novelist has too.”
—The Brooklyn Rail
“Grief can be so powerful that it makes its own reality.... Bell writes with a singular voice — folkloric tone and syntax but also very much aware of the modernity that it is ignoring.... it’s a gut punch.”
—Austin American Statesman
"House feels like a Tolkien epic set inside Plato's cave written by Carl Jung, and it's just as frustrating and mind-boggling and satisfying as you'd expect a book with that description to be."
"A fantastical debut."
—Barnes and Noble Review
“Love is not all, but it always feels like it is.... It's rare that somebody gets it right, which is why Matt Bell's debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, is so remarkable. It's one of the most thoughtful recent works of fiction on a subject that defeats many writers before they pick up their pens.”
—Northwest Public Radio
“A powerful work of art... a horror story, a nightmare as repulsive as it is brilliant.... you will be haunted by it.”
—The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Surreal and dark and heartbreaking and astoundingly, astoundingly beautiful... It’s a creation myth written with incantatory prose.”
—Michele Filgate, New Hampshire Public Radio
"In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods expresses an absolute, singular understanding of the limits and compromises and compulsions of love."
—Philadelphia City Paper
"A novel of catastrophic beauty and staggering originality."
“In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods shatters narrative convention to deliver an allegory with the compelling power of mythology... Though unrelentingly heartbreaking, this debut novel wrings such beauty from pain that readers will relish every shred of sorrow.”
"Challenging, boldly experimental."
"Matt Bell’s visionary debut novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and Woods is one of the most singularly strange and beautiful and wondrous books to come along in a long time.... [Bell] has invented an entirely new rhetoric of fiction and marked unique territory of his own."
"In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods has an impressive wealth to share with its reader... it’s a gorgeous, bottomless book."
“A haunting and hypnotic fever-dream.... lays bare all of our unconscious anxieties and forces recognition of, if not a direct confrontation with, very basic and primal fears. One suspects a Jungian psychologist would have a field day with this book.”
—American Short Fiction
“In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is both visionary and self-reflexive, full of horrifying deeps but also soulful ones, and does not disappoint—though it does haunt, as a chronicle of a world coming apart.”
"One of the year’s best novels ... Bell keeps the narrative evolving, shifting groundrules and revealing more about his setting and characters. Disorienting and evocative, this is a fantastic reading experience."
—Vol 1. Brooklyn
"Meticulously designed, with a particular focus on the musicality of its sentences.... an unflinching portrait of the struggle to keep a family intact."
"In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is a terrifying and wonderful fable."
—Flavorwire (STAFF PICK)
“I can’t decide which is more impressive: Bell’s boundless imagination or the spare-yet-lyrical, simply lovely way that he has woven words together to express it. Prepare to be mesmerized.”
"Bell cracks us in the mind's eye, drops us in inky waters, leaves us dripping with love potions and scarred from our innermost animal natures…. In the tradition of Calvino, Borges, and Kafka, this is a mystic's tale—the gods here are most definitely crazy."
“In The House Upon The Dirt Between The Lake And The Woods reads like a fairy tale with the emotion and psychology of a contemporary novel.... [Bell keeps] his readers awake night after night. But it’s ok, because when you’re wrapped up in a Matt Bell story, you don’t want to sleep anyway.”
“In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is dreamlike and fairy-tale-like and fable-like. But like dreams and fairy tales and fables, there is something recognizable and real at its heart.”
—Fiction Writers Review
“It was heartbreaking and strange and sonorous, like being sung to sleep by something with far too many teeth.”
—Landon Mitchell, McNally Jackson Books
“In [the man and wife’s] opposition lies the heart of where all love falters—when wills clash and communication ceases. It’s as true in the magical house as it is in every other dwelling. We just don’t have mythical bear-children.”
“Centuries of storytelling have left us with the typical fabulist female used as a device to define the male characters in the story, with no real definition of her own. In this novel... the tension hangs on what she desires.... pulsing and glittering at the bottom of all that misery is a quiet kind of hope in the love that is buried and unearthed between the protagonist and his wife, a love that leads the reader back to the dirt, back to the woods and lake, and, in the end, lets us all rest if not comfortably—for that is absent here—at least peacefully.”
"Hallucinatorily original mythic story-telling for grown-ups."
—Drawn and Quarterly Bookstore
Praise for Matt Bell
"Gorgeous, brilliant, often darkly hilarious and always moving.... Written with an ingenuity and joy that call to mind Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities."
—Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!
"No less original or thought-provoking than contemporary fabulist stalwarts like Aimee Bender or Etgar Keret, [he] expands the scope of experimental writing."
—Fiction Writers Review
"Matt Bell can do what so many fiction writers can't: Matt Bell can make anything happen."
—Michael Kimball, author of Big Ray
"Matt Bell has built a national reputation on his own terms, completely outside the support system of New York publishing, on the strength of his stories and novellas, which are wholly original and singularly his own."
"A compelling portrait both of the way a heated mind can come to recreate the world and of how fascination with such a mind can end up being its own sort of trap. A wonderful, obsessive novella."
—Brian Evenson, author of The Open Curtain
"His wild manipulation of form and genre makes the bulk of contemporary fiction feel bloodless and inert in comparison."
—Matthew Derby, author of Super Flat Times
"Bell brings us everything: symbolism, futurism à la David Ohle, devastation, surrealism, scenic energy, fractured fairytales, consumption, struggle, claustrophobia, and family decay... [But] Bell knows how to keep his world in check, his every word balanced against another, delicately, like a system of weights."