How They Were Found
Gestalt Mash has my latest column, this time on Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times, a wonderful film about three love affairs over the past hundred years in Taiwan. You can check it out here.
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.”
How They Were Found is the first collection of short fiction from Matt Bell, whose work has appeared in Conjunctions, American Short Fiction, and Best American Fantasy 2, and is known for writing literary fiction with a genre flavour, similar to that of Brian Evenson. Having previously read and enjoyed the story that appeared in Best American Fantasy 2, Mario’s Three Lives, I was looking forward to reading the collection, and although all the stories are solid, I did find that my enjoyment varied.
The opening story, the best in the collection, The Cartographer’s Girl, marries loss and longing to Bell’s experimental style that works on every level, and I can see why Larry chose it for considering for Best American Fantasy. Careful and precise exposition goes hand and hand with spatial awareness to create a story that I felt was genuinely moving. For me, when dealing with these very human situations is when Bell is at his best, like in Dredge, in which a man traumatised by a similar situation in the best hides the body of a drowned girl in his freezer and attempts to find her killer, despite lacking the funds or facilities to succeed. The same is also true of A Certain Number of Bedrooms, A Certain Number of Baths, in which a young boy comes to terms with his mother’s suicide and his father’s subsequent withdrawal through memorizing the contents of housing catalogues. I also enjoyed His Last Great Gift, a fictional account of John Murray Spear attempt to construct the New Motor, an electronically powered second coming, with the help of the spirits of Franklin, Jefferson and Rush.
Unfortunately, there were a few stories I felt just didn’t click with me. The sentiment of Hold On To Your Vacuum resonated, but the drill metaphor was a little heavy handed. The Receiving Tower never quite reached the level of absurdity to make it horrifying in the way that a similar sort of Evenson story is, and I felt The Collectors did a better job in that sense. While Wolf Parts, various interpretations of the red riding hood fairy tale presented as short pieces of flash fiction was very clever and noted the underlying themes of the tale as noted by Lacan, I felt it never really engaged with them in a way like someone like Angela Carter does. I felt the other story that uses an experimental form, An Index of How Our Family Was Killed, about the various deaths of members of a family told by a remaining paranoid person who believes he is next, worked better. Constructing it using alphabetically ordered sentences, Bell carefully reveals the different causes of deaths leading to the author’s own final statement.
Overall, How They Were Found is a solid if not spectacular debut collection from a writer who clearly has talent. At his best, Bell is able to evoke in the reader those same feelings that haunt his characters, of loss and loneliness, and a certain kind of damage. This characters are people who live on the edges, who exist somewhere in between reality and the absurd. While I wasn’t blown away by his debut in the same way that I was by something like Altmann’s Tongue, Bell’s writing still shows a lot of promise, and I look forward to reading more from him in the future.
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