“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, by Matt Bell
Soho Press, 2013
I’ll admit it. When I look for a novel to read, I judge books by their covers.
This one, the title caught my eye, and when I pulled it off the shelf the first thing that grabbed my eye was the bold silhouette of a bear underneath the title, on the top half of the cover. And in the lower half… tentacles.
Tentacles will always get me to open the cover.
The book jacket informs me that this is a story about a newly married couple, who move out into the wilderness to hunt, fish, and to start a family. There will be a miscarriage.
I think about putting it back on the shelf. Me, I’m not one for family dramas about grief.
There will be a miscarriage, oh, and by the way, the wife sings various objects into existence, ranging from furniture for the house to moons in the sky.
I was expecting Rick Moody and suddenly I’m in Kalevala territory.
Plus, there are still tentacles on the cover.
So, I took the book home, dove in, and...
The action of In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods takes place in the house upon the dirt between the lake and the woods.
And a little bit in the lake.
And in the woods.
Also, on the dirt.
Within these few locations, the story centers on the relationship between the husband and wife, told from the husband’s point of view. Neither the man or woman are ever named in the 300 pages of the novel. The miscarriage, the emotional impact of which will drive the story, takes place early on. The couple's efforts to cope "are complicated by a series of biological occurrences that make even the noisiest scenes in Eraserhead feel like an episode of Sesame Street." (Andrew Ervin) There's a case to be made that the rest of the novel is a ghost story. But there's a equally compelling case that Bell intends us to take at face value a bizarre case of endoparasitism.
Later, there are two other characters that enter the story: the bear and the squid from the book's cover.
There are others who populate this world, but these aren’t so much additional people as carve-outs (in some cases, literally) from the original cast of characters.
In one sense, any novel is like a toy theater: the author is a puppeteer who moves characters around within the limits of a frame to create stories. But here, Bell’s sparse location and small cast calls attention to the artificiality of such an exercise. And yet, the logical rules of this surreal world give the story an epic cast, so that no matter how grotesque the next turn of the story, it is still hauntingly absorbing.
The husband's laconic and gruff voice add to the story’s mythic quality. Author Bell actually spoke every word aloud as he wrote the novel, in an effort to keep the tone consistent. (Fair warning: this type of prose can come across as gimmicky. I can easily see many readers hurling the book across the room after 30 pages). But, if you like your magical realism more magical than real, if you like your modern day fairy tales soaked in blood, couched in a disturbing dream state, check it out.
Andrew Ervin, “Even Our Bones Had Memories: An Interview with Matt Bell,” TinHouse. April 8, 2013 <http://www.tinhouse.com/blog/24399/even-our-bones-had-memories.html> (November 18, 2014)
Ron Charles, "Hopeful marriage turns dark in ‘In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods,’” The Washington Post, June 25, 2013, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/hopeful-marriage-turns-dark-in-in-the-house-upon-the-dirt-between-the-lake-and-the-woods/2013/06/25/4b28a4e0-d81d-11e2-a9f2-42ee3912ae0e_story.html> (November 18, 2014)