It’s hard to think of another collection in recent memory that covers as much stylistic ground while still maintaining a high level of quality as Matt Bell’s How They Were Found (Keyhole Press). It follows last year’s chapbook How the Broken Lead the Blind — and, typing this out now, there’s a sudden recognition that the titles of the two collections, taken together, begin to imply a story of their own. Two of the longer stories in How They Were Found initially appeared as standalone chapbooks: “Wolf Parts,” a sort of deconstruction of Red Riding Hood, and “The Collectors,” Bell’s postmodern take on the reclusive Collyer brothers and their obsessive tendencies towards collecting and hoarding objects of every variety.
From these two stories, one might take Bell for a writer on the more accessible side of experimental fiction: a curator and manipulator of certain known quantities, sometimes making himself known as he walks among the scenes he presents. But after reading the thirteen stories collected here, a picture emerges of a writer with a much grander reach. Along with the more structurally complex stories mentioned earlier, How They Were Found also offers a taut account of the coverup and investigation of a murder, a surreal story of amnesiac soldiers in a polar landscape, and a tale of a woman’ encounter with the personification of her ex-lover’s lost idiosyncrasies and bad habits.
And yet, for all of the intentional surrealism of some of these stories, there’s an emotional specificity that resonates. How They Were Found opens with “The Cartographer’s Girl,” which at first seems to fall into a certain corner of contemporary fiction: an unnamed city, a protagonist known only by his occupation, a crucial character now missing, the incorporation of symbols into the text. Yet the sense of loss here makes sense; even as the setting seems stylized, the characters are recognizably human; the protagonist’s namelessness feels less like some nod towards making him an Everyman and more a logical outgrowth of his particular job, of the assigning of titles to specific points in space.
One could suggest Angela Carter or Steve Erickson as reference points, but Bell also draws from less expected sources: the repetitive, occasionally brutal structure of “Hold On To Your Vacuum,” for example, has an experiential similarity to video games, a topic Bell has incorporated in his fiction and discussed in essays and on his blog. And it’s moments such as these that make Bell’s fiction feel uniquely modern: he’s folding unexpected elements in to his fiction in neatly organic ways; not simply namechecking technology, but understanding how to make it work within the context of his fiction.
It doesn’t hurt that Bell’s empathy with his characters is consistent even when his fiction is at its most structurally experimental. “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed” is exactly what its title suggests. Yet Bell finds the emotional resonance in that form, sometimes through repetition, and sometimes through a perfectly arranged phrase. And one of these entries — “Family, as in something broken or lost” — both stands on its own as a particularly wrenching passage and seems to summon up and recontextualize the titles of both of Bell’s collections.
The expansiveness of this collection may be disorienting at first. The damaged protagonist of “Dredge,” trying desperately to solve a murder he’s incapable of rationally investigating, may seem like an uneasy neighbor of the fragmented variations on familiar characters in “Wolf Parts” or the religious leader haunted by revelations of a mechanical messiah in “His Last Great Gift.” But taken together, the entirety of this collection represents an attempt to marry several generations of literary techniques, to find common ground between the ultra-modern and the classical, the historic and the post-modern. It’s a venture at which Bell succeeds, yielding something that’s also a pleasure to read.
About the author:
Tobias Carroll lives in Brooklyn. He writes about music and books (and sometimes the places where they overlap). His fiction has appeared in THE2NDHAND, 3:AM, Word Riot, Vol.1, and as part of Featherproof Books’ “Light Reading” series. He is presently working on REEL, a short novel.