In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods

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In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This debut novel from up-and-coming Bell (Cataclysm Baby) is a dark, intriguingly odd fable about what it means to be a father. The narrator (no character is given a proper name) takes his new bride to a secluded house in an area populated only by wildlife, including an overly symbolic she-bear. The carefully wrought prose takes its cues from magical realism: “Beneath the unscrolling story of new sun and stars and then-lonely moon, began to sing some new possessions” to furnish their rustic abode. Things get stranger still when the man consumes his still-born son’s body. The couple struggles to conceive again, until one day the woman brings home a young child dubbed “the foundling.” The man can’t accept the boy and, haunted by his dead child’s ghost, descends into madness. The sketchy narrative and characters, however, interest Bell less than large-scale themes: the oedipal competition between a father and son for a mother’s love; threatened masculinity; and, more elliptically, man’s impact on the environment. This challenging, boldly experimental attempt at myth-building may resonate with equally ambitious readers, but offers fewer rewards to those looking for narrative pleasures. Agent: Kirby Kim, William Morris Endeavor. (June)
From the Publisher
ABA Indie Next Pick
Flavorwire Staff Pick/Top 10 Debut of 2013
The Nervous Breakdown Book Club Selection

Praise for In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods

“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.... 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

"Will haunt you long after you’ve read it, Bell’s novel mixes myth with a spooky, unsettling tone best described as “Midwestern Borges”.... something few writers, debut or otherwise, could so perfectly render."
Jason Diamond, Flavorwire Literary Editor

"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

"There is a power here that is almost overwhelming. The force of the writing is derived from something elemental and primal. Unlike anything I have read in a long time."

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

"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."
—Chicago Tribune

“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."
—The Stranger

"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 

"Wildly original."
—The Orgeonian

“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.”
—Shelf Awareness

"Challenging, boldly experimental."
—Publishers Weekly

"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."
—Tin House

"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.”
—Rain Taxi

"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."
Kirkus Review

"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."
Interview Magazine

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.”
—Columbia Journal

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.”
—Spectrum Magazine

“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.”
—Contrary Magazine

"Hallucinatorily original mythic story-telling for grown-ups."
—Drawn and Quarterly Bookstore

“Mystic and vivid...”
—Central Michigan Life

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."
The Rumpus

Library Journal
Here Bell (creative writing, Northern Michigan Univ.; How They Were Found) puts the fable in fabulism. This spare, devastating novel peels back layers of geography, modernity, and even proper nouns. Its characters—husband and wife, fingerling and foundling, bear and squid—share in their universality something with the woodsmen and witches and stepchildren of fairy tales past. This story follows a husband and wife as they arrive, freshly married, in a wilderness and try to start a family. The wife is endowed with great powers of creation; she can sing objects, and even whole worlds, into being. When their attempts to conceive result in miscarriage, she resorts to other means to provide their family with offspring, while her husband is haunted by the ghost of their unborn son. Their grief divides them, and they must separately grapple with the bear who rules their woods and the squid who dwells in their lake, with labyrinths of memory, and with the anger of children both injured and unrecalled. VERDICT Bell's story 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. [For more on Bell and this title, see the Editors' Picks feature on page 34 and a Q&A with the author on page 96.—Ed.]—Molly McArdle, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
A folkloric, allegorical tale of modern marriage, complete with shape-shifting, secret passageways and trials by fire. The couple in this debut novel by Bell (How They Were Found: Stories, 2010) isn't named, but the author drops strong hints that we should think of them as Adam and Eve. That's not just because we know the man's name is two syllables and that the woman's is three letters and palindromic, but because they are so clearly archetypes of babes in the wilderness. The two left the city for the woods after marrying, but miscarriage after miscarriage has undone their hopes for a family. All the man is left with is a "fingerling"--a fetuslike being that occupies his body and intones the occasional bit of devilish guidance. After the woman arrives with a "foundling"--actually a bear cub morphed to look like a child--the couple becomes increasingly stressed and divided by their unnatural state of being. That's one way to look at it, anyhow: Bell cultivates a loose sense of unreality that allows the reader to make all sorts of metaphorical projections. But the novel is also meticulously designed, with a particular focus on the musicality of its sentences, and the narrative's general arc of adventure and discovery is relatively conventional. In time, the man will lose his wife, tussle aboveground with a bear and underwater with a squid, and discover an underworld that's a replica of the woodsy world he's left. Some of Bell's heavily symbolic adventuring grows too repetitive to sustain a full-length novel--there's a reason Jorge Borges stuck with short stories--but there's an undeniably heartfelt tone to this tale that transcends its unusual cast. As the male character's path to redemption leaves his body increasingly ravaged, Bell's book becomes an unflinching portrait of the struggle to keep a family intact.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616952532
  • Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/18/2013
  • Pages: 312
  • Sales rank: 793,897
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 6, 2013

    This book is a world both dark and wondrous. It is something ede

    This book is a world both dark and wondrous. It is something edenlike about it, primal, yet at the same time something of what I feel when imagining the deep of water I cannot see the bottom of and can't believe ends. It's slippery, rolling, and marvelous. The voice is perfect as well, a language flow that is something both somewhat biblical and somewhat frontier. I can't really describe it, but I shouldn't anyway. In order to describe it right I would somehow have to write the book again, which I couldn't anyway.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 18, 2013

    This novel reminded me of rowing a boat out to the middle of the

    This novel reminded me of rowing a boat out to the middle of the lake, the water calm and clear and devoid of people and engines, the only sounds heard are the gentle rocking of the boat, the casting of the line as it whistles through the air, and the reel being unwound and wound. Instead of beer, there’s wine in the cooler, a sombrero on my head to block out the sun’s harsh rays, and a woman in a pantsuit to my left with her head back and sunglasses plastered on her face that make her look like a ladybug. The crisp air nips at my face, and the scent of pine fills my nostrils.

    The language made me want to skip up and down the street whistling, and the poetic prose flowed like a sentence dissection expedition. I ended up feeling like this was a bit of a drawn-out affair, with even the title—IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS—causing an individual to choke on multiple popcorn kernels. This novel reminded me of traversing a mountain pass on a Saturday afternoon on a day so clear you can see for miles, and clouds are nothing more than a distant memory. I loved the language and the mythology, but it felt a bit short on content.

    If you like the kind of novel where you place it on a shelf and stare at it, where you focus more on the beauty and rhythm of the language than the words being said, and you happen to enjoy wandering around aimlessly for a few hours, then this book is for you.

    I received this book for free through NetGalley.

    Robert Downs
    Author of Falling Immortality: Casey Holden, Private Investigator

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