Three Views of Matt Bell's How They Were Found by Three Literary Creeps
Matt Bell first got my attention by imbuing the titular videogame character from Super Mario Brothers with a kind of sadness and depth in "Mario's Three Lives," a story ultimately chosen for reprint in Best American Fantasy. His stand-alone chapbook The Collectors confirmed the impression of an interesting new talent, one working in the same gray area as writers like Brian Evenson: a kind of middle ground between the real and the unreal that writers like Kafka also inhabit.
So it was with anticipation that I read his debut collection How They Were Found. While the tone of many of the stories is similar, the subject matter is wide-ranging, and as the cover copy reads, "Throughout these thirteen stories, Bell's careful prose burrows at the foundations of his characters' lives until they topple over, then painstakingly pores over the wreckage for what rubbled humanity might yet remain to be found."
The collection has received praise from a number of sources, including The Believer: "Body toll notwithstanding, How They Were Found is anything but bleak. For one thing, there's the prose: generous, urgent, rhythmic." Matthew Derby, author of Super Flat Times: Stories, wrote, "You're a robot if the stories in Matt Bell's debut collection don't exhilarate, frighten, and unalterably change you."
The book seemed like a good choice for the next read for the impromptu book club, Three Literary Creeps, that sprang up initially because of interest in Grace Krilanovich's The Orange Eats Creeps. The other two members of this troika are literary bloggers Paul Charles Smith (Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream) and Larry Nolen (The Of Blog), who have an interest in Decadent and cross-genre fiction. In reviewing the books we chose, we do not compare notes ahead of time.
That's proven particularly interesting this time around, as all three of us had different reactions, with some variation between what we felt were stronger and weaker stories. This suggests to me that Bell's collection has more variety than any of us acknowledge in ou review. Here are excerpts from those reviews, with links to the full versions. Definitely check out the collection.
"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." - Paul Charles Smith (read more here)
"The highlight of this collection definitely is the first tale, "The Cartographer's Girl." Originally appearing in the journal Gulf Coast, this story immediately captured my attention soon after I began my series editorship for Best American Fantasy 4. From the first paragraph, with the cartographic symbols used to signify the narrator's relationship with his ex-girlfriend and the times and places where they moved into, through, and out of each other's life, to latter passages where it felt as though narrative was beginning to dissolve into an intense, interior mindscape, Bell's story captivated me. The deliberately formal, detached narrative set the stage well for the story to explore an interior vista where the symbols expressed on a map correlate precisely with the emotions that the narrator experiences as he explores where he became 'lost,' both in the symbolic landscape of his romantic past and also in regards to his current position." - Larry Nolen (read more here)
"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." - Jeff VanderMeer (read more here)