Matt Bell sees potential that the rest of us don’t. He refuses to limit himself to established literary conventions, instead reaching beyond the expected tropes-suicide in the family, the mental weight brought on by a mysterious murder, short-lived love-to reassess for more powerful, and wholly more interesting, possibilities. Bell’s suicide story addresses the implied self-reflection by centering around a blueprint-obsessed son of the deceased, literally giving form to the boy’s hope of a rebuilt family (“A Certain Number of Bedrooms, A Certain Number of Baths”). Bell’s mysterious murder story isn’t a whodunit, but more of a who-woundn’t-have-dunit and tricks the reader into sympathizing with the assumed murderer (“Dredge”). His short-lived love story is romantic only in its endearing hopelessness, following an orally obsessed bar patron from the bar stool to the toilet stall, bar-fly one-night-stand in hand (“Mantoeda”). Yet despite Bell’s renaissance approach to story types, he has crafted a thematically cohesive and structurally invincible collection with How They Were Found.
The cohesiveness is all the more impressive considering this collection represents not a stand-alone effort, but instead gathers many of Bell’s previously published stories. The sense of following the author’s thematic evolution-and thematic consistency-from the earliest published story (“Ten Scenes From a Movie Called Mercy”) to the most recent (“Dredge”) is to understand the writer on a personal level. This is not a best-of collection. This is not a collection of personally important works. How They Were Found is a volume meant to invite the reader into Bell’s world.
The opener, “The Cartographer’s Girl,” is a story in which a cartographer literally maps his own world. This idea of a conscious world-building permeates the collection, often taking form as an attempt to craft a family out of lost and ruined peripherals: “The Collectors,” as a shotgun attempt to find family within a lifetime’s material accumulate; “Wolf Parts,” as a meta representation of family building, given the context of the story’s source material-Little Red Riding Hood-as a childhood fable; “A Certain Number of Bedrooms, a Certain Number of Baths,” as a perfectly bookended echo to the collection’s opener, this time using a father’s blueprint collection as the source for his son’s attempted world-building.
But Bell is not satisfied to simply tame, weave, and present bizarre concepts. He takes obvious pride in presentation at a sentence level. From “The Cartographer’s Girl”:
“The compasses are disappointingly true, pointing north over and over, when all he wants is for one to dissent, to demur, to show him the new direction he cannot find on his own” (pg 14).
From “The Receiving Tower”:
“It has been dark as long as I can remember, long enough that the sun grows increasingly theoretical, abstract” (pg 31).
“There was a time when I knew over one hundred words for static, but now there is only the one, so insufficient to the complexity of the thing it describes” (pg 41).
Perhaps the strongest story of the collection is “His Last Great Gift” (which is saying a lot considering I named the included stand-alone novella “Wolf Parts” one of my top 5 books of 2010). Here is a reimagining of the biblical creation story unlike any I’ve ever read. Think mythology stripped away and replaced with mechanical reasoning. Think ephemeral prayers transmitted by copper wire. Think a virgin not only anchoring the religion in purity, but used as battery power to make the title’s “creation machine” function. Like many readers, I assume, I caught myself, over and over, trying to extract anti-religion sentiment, trying to pigeonhole this story as a simple anarchist “fuck you” to structured religion, but I couldn’t. The story is tender where it needs to be and objective more than subjective. It’s a story that plays with religion, not one that attempts to ridicule it. And like the larger collection, it kept me simultaneously impressed, intrigued, and saddened that it must eventually end.
I have before compared Bell’s work to the comically grotesque staples of Brian Evenson and to contemporaries like J.A Tyler and xTx, and How They Were Found cannot be exempted. Perhaps more the former than the latter in this case, as this collection nurtures the very bizarre concepts that give meaning to the term grotesque. These stories are simultaneously morbidly fascinating and deeply relevant.