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.
With the house built, the couple tries to start a family, but the wife miscarries again and again. Feelings of bitterness and resentment develop. Finally, the wife gives birth to a healthy boy. The husband is convinced that the child is not his own: He calls him “the foundling” and believes that his wife has created him through song.
Fearing for her child’s safety, the wife flees with her son through an elaborate series of rooms she has sung beneath the house. The rest of the novel follows the husband’s search for his wife and child, though whether he’s seeking to save or destroy them we (and he) are not certain.
Such a plot summary, however, omits nearly everything that makes this novel so striking. It ignores the surreal appearance of the bear and squid, nightmarish creatures that alternatively help and hinder the narrator in his quest. It ignores the dream-like organization of the story, which proceeds more by association (the phrase “and then” regularly connects disparate events) than by dramatic logic. It ignores the dreadful beat of violence that echoes throughout the work, the atmosphere of dread that pervades the most insignificant of actions.
And, finally, it ignores Bell’s incantatory prose style. There’s an old-fashioned, biblical grandeur to Bell’s writing, as when the narrator describes “how the sundered sky refused the dirt’s offering.” The book, filled with internal rhymes and heavy alliteration, begs to be read aloud. It’s a driving, oral epic that reads like poetry: “The dirt crawled with flames, hot tongues licking that old star-glass.”
Bell isn’t much interested in psychological realism. His characters are primal and terrifying, driven by elemental forces — pride, anger, hunger — that they can’t really understand, let alone control. Eventually, the narrator learns that he is part of a larger, more timeless narrative: “upon the dirt between the lake and the woods, always there were two that appeared, and always the two made a single child.” The bear was once like the wife: a woman who came to this strange land in order to escape her old life. And the squid was once a whale and before that a man, always a “legion of possibility, a thousand shapes all wanting only to be made more.” Bell’s characters, that is to say, live in the world of archetype and myth, where recurrence and transformation predominate.
Bell has set himself a difficult task, and not everything works. Sometimes what he wants to be bizarrely powerful is just bizarre. At other times, the novel’s hypermasculine tone grates. But these flaws are the necessary price of Bell’s ambitions. “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.
Anthony Domestico, the book columnist for Commonweal, can be reached at anthony.