It’s hard to describe how strange and powerful Matt Bell’s first novel, “In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods,” is. It is a boldly experimental work, opening up previously untapped territory for contemporary fiction. Yet it is also defiantly traditional, patterning itself on Norwegian myth and borrowing rhythms from the King James Bible. It centers on recognizable characters: a young married couple, struggling to make a new life together. Yet it also features a talking bear and a mythical squid, a quest through an underground labyrinth and songs that can call the stars out of the sky.
The plot goes something like this: A young man, the narrator, marries a young woman. (Both characters are unnamed, though Bell suggests that we might understand them as Adam and Eve.) The two move away from “the land of [their] parents,” a city in the mountains, to a wilder, more secluded place, nestled between a lake and the woods. Together they build a house: The husband cuts wood and makes furniture; the wife, who possesses the power to sing things — stars, moons, entire worlds — into existence, fills the house’s interior by song.