Triple Review: Matt Bell’s Story Collection How They Were Found

How They Were Found by Matt Bell is the debut collection by a talented story writer whose work often straddles the gap between realism and fantasy or horror. Formally innovative, his fiction has appeared in Conjunctions and Best American Mystery Stories. The stories range from the tale of a nineteenth-century minister creating a mechanical messiah to the documenting of a strange and failing military outpost. In advance praise for the collection, Laird Hunt called it “fierce, unflinching, funny.”

This is the second book selected for review by Larry Nolen, Paul Charles Smith, and myself. You can read the entries on this book by the other two here and here.

Some writers run hot and some run cold. A few by dint of personality and natural inclination manage to achieve both effects at a high level of achievement; I’d argue that Vladimir Nabokov is a good example of a writer who has both hot and cold attributes. By which I mean that he can evoke great pathos and drama, is unafraid to unleash great passion onto the page, but he can also be understated and restrained and indicate emotion through its absence—be in a sense removed from the text. Each approach has its pros and cons in terms of what types of stories you can tell, but in most writers this aspect of heat or chill is hardwired into their psyche, into their worldview. Variation from the core approach is possible, but there’s always still a core of chill or warmth.

Matt Bell, at least on the evidence presented in How They Were Found falls somewhere on the cold end of the fiction spectrum: a writer whose work is always architecturally interesting, exhibiting at times a reliance on deconstruction or reconstruction of story elements. His fiction depends for its effects on absence and removal and leaving narrative gaps that suggest elements of story or character. There are some surface similarities with the fiction of writers like Brian Evenson, but Evenson’s tone and approach seem more balanced between hot and cold by dint of his use of quietly subversive black humor and tendency toward documenting darkly absurd situations.

In some ways the formal experiment “An Index of How a Family Was Killed”—with entries from A to Z like “Camera, fear of, need for. To document the bodies, to show the size and location of wounds, to produce photographs to explain the entry and exit points of weapons”—exemplifies Bell’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer at this point in his career. In its fidelity to the form of an index cataloguing the killing of a family, the story is in a way too faithful, too architecturally perfect. It needs, even demands, either the kinds of digression that would turn this family from a generic unit into a portrait of real, specific people and or the kinds of digressions that might disguise the functional aspect of the entries. It needs this even as the reader appreciates the strengths of what is on display: a fragmentation that in a sense mirrors the subject matter and a smattering of great specific detail. In one sense, there’s a sense of a virtuoso writer skillfully creating story out of scraps. On the other, the sense of entering a cathedral that’s empty.

A story like “The Receiving Tower” reminds me in tone of Stephen Graham Jones’ amazing “Little Lambs,” among others, but has its own starkness and strength. The mysteriousness of some of the events in the story, the sense of unspoken ritual, the broken ending, is compelling, and enough to satisfy the reader without the kind of traditional story arc or shape another writer might have given to the same material. It’s also one of the stories where emotion leaks into the text through the first-person narrator, to good effect. Another of the strongest stories, “The Collectors,” which previously appeared as a stand-alone chapbook, includes lists of objects in a way that has a cumulative effect in part because the story makes a strange family come to life through these descriptions.

By contrast, the ambitious “His Last Great Gift,” with its cult of Electricizers, cannot quite shake some essential dryness, some sense of characters performing actions preordained by the writer. “The Cartographer’s Girl”’s obsession with symbols tends to undercut the effect of the story—although we know that the symbols are meant to be integrated with the text, it is hard to shake the impression (the least charitable among available options, I know) that what might’ve been a good anchor during drafting has become integrated in a way that takes too much attention from the narrative itself. The rest of the stories alternate between success and almost-success in similar ways.

Curious things happen when you put together a story collection: strengths of narratives can become weaknesses through repetition, or, conversely, can shore up and accentuate those strengths to create a greater whole. There’s a real tension in the decision-making process: what kind of a selection will enhance cohesion and focus while also avoiding sameness of approach. (This is all aside from the essential question every story writer needs to ask: When do I have enough worthy and usefully interlocking material to publish a first collection?)

In terms of approaches to structure, How They Were Found is endlessly adventurous and inventive. There is also an admirable aspect of holding firm to seriousness of intent. But the result also means there’s a kind of tightness across the span of the book. Part of this tendency might be related to a lack of humor in Bell’s fiction—and I don’t mean slapstick guffaws, but a lack of the kind of absurdity you find in Kafka, which creates by its introduction and the point of view expressed, a kind of fluidity and a suggestion of greater depth. (I bring this up to not suggest that one writer be more like another writer, but as an example pointing toward something missing, the source of a lack I can’t quite put my finger on.)

Bell’s How They Were Found is a worthy grouping of stories, but I’m not sure they benefit by being in communication with one another in this particular way, and for this reason while I recommend picking up the book I also don’t recommend reading it straight-through. What does seem clear is that Bell, here, at the start of his career, displays the kind of intelligence, self-awareness, and care with regard to his prose that suggests he may become a major talent.

Comments

  1. says

    I am enjoying these reviews among you three. It is interesting to see whether you will reach a similar conclusion or go off in different directions.

    I have never heard of Matt Bell before, which is not surprising given that I do not read near enough short fiction, and reading these three reviews, I am unlikely to head out and lay down the money for this collection. Not that I was in danger of that before, but you never know what you might find interesting when wandering through a book store.

    Though I may not be interested in heading out and buying the collection, what these reviews have done is made me aware of the author and the fact that he has several stories available to read online. I will be taking the time to read them at some point and then, maybe, if I find I enjoy what I have read, I will get around to read this collection… just not straight through.

    Also, thanks for delivering one of the reminding kicks to my skull that I need to read more of Brian Evenson’s work. Keeps slipping my mind.

  2. Todd says

    Jeff,

    “Some writers run hot and some run cold.” God, I feel like I’m on the edge of understanding this concept. So, one being a writer who does a lot of ostentatious drama, clear visible responses; the other writer being one who builds drama through subtraction? (iceberg effect) Am I on the right track?

    At first, I thought you were talking about the core emotional elements behind stories from certain authors, of which all writers draw from the warm (hopeful, positive world) or from the cold (hopeless, negative world). On any account, I found this review very illuminating. Thank you!

  3. jeff vandermeer says

    More or less. I am not sure ostentacious is a word I would use in this comparison, though.

    The cold writer may at times appear to be less obviously in the text, even though the seeming presence of authorial voice or vision in a hot writer is still just a construct. But, yes, a cold writer seems more at a remove, perhaps more clinical. There’s just as much possibility for emotional impact in a cold writer’s books but something about their world view places them in position to characters, prose, etc, in a place different than a hot writer. And, as noted, this is a spectrum and there are writers whose approach varies. jv

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