"The drill is matte black
and dull yellow, loaded with a foot long bit spinning at full speed.
Teacher cocks my head and angles the drill downward into the crown of
my skull. He pushes it in, past skin and bone, and then I scream and
then I can't remember why I'm screaming and then I'm gone."
Reviewed by Diane Becker
I started Matt Bell’s second collection How They Were Found with the last story, An Index of How Our Family Was Killed.
I did this because I’m a perverse kind of reader. I like to know what
I’m getting into before I begin, especially (in this instance) as I’d
not read any of Bell’s work before. So I had no preconceptions. An Index of How Our Family Was Killed
enthralled me. The irrationality of death presented as an index, the
most rational of forms - not only is the idea poetic - but the
prose contained within, is poetic too. This under ‘T’:
"The sound of a car breaking the surface of a lake.
The sound of a confession, taped and played back.
The sound of a gunshot reverberating, echoing between concrete facades.
The sound of a knife, clacking against bone.
The sound of a message played over and over until the tape wears thin."
Bell builds the narrative by layering details that overlap or
repeat; an accumulation of forensic evidence that locates or
rather, reconstructs the family who have "been killed". Clever stuff. I
was impressed (very impressed) and started reading from the beginning.
I found it impossible (in a good way) to read one story directly after
another. It’s like going to more than one exhibition in a day, it’s not
a good idea. These stories have the same density as a painting, and are
often visceral. It takes time to assimilate and digest them.
Wolf Parts is a story, or
rather a sequence of stories, based on Red Riding Hood. Well, the main
characters, Red Riding Hood, the Wolf and Grandma are there, but that’s
the starting point for Bell to deconstruct it, turn the story inside
out, rework it, reconstruct, or devour and regurgitates the remains,
delivering around forty variances of the fable. This is one of them:
commanded, she climbed into the bed naked, speaking in soft,
mock-innocent syllables, pretending not to notice that the figure in
the nightgown was not her grandmother, so that the great, hairy wolf
would feel safe to reveal his true intentions. She waited, polite and
acquiescent, and as soon as the wolf forced himself inside her, she
sprung her trap, showing him that she too knew what it meant to consume
If Wolf Parts
was a plate of food, it would be molecular cuisine. Imagine Heston
Blumenthal as a writer. Bell takes all the components of story-telling,
reprocesses, then represents them in such a way that although we may
not be sure what Bell is going to deliver next, we expect it to be fabulous.
Molecular cusine? Hmm. I
found myself making many cross-cultural references while reading this
book. Given the way that Bell experiments with form and language (which
as an aside, often sounds European, rather than American, and I mean
that in a good way too), I think it’s appropriate to make these connections. Stories like Mantodea and Her Ennead,
are rooted in myth; another, Ten Scenes From A Movie Called Mercy
overtly references cinematic form. Bell presents the reader with two
images, a man and a "little girl in a sundress [who] pirouettes on a
coffee table, her curly red hair encircled in a costume tiara" and
attempts, via the narrative, to control the outcome:
"Off camera, pray for editing, for the rearrangement of film. The
director could take the first scene and throw it away. With a pair of
scissors, he could let the second scene tumble to the cutting room
floor in a clatter of 8mm frames. Cellulose nitrate is highly
flammable, so pray for the fourth scene to be cut by fire. Pray to keep
her safe from the person who wants to hurt her. Take the next scene and
throw it away. Resist denouement, resist the solving of mysteries and
the revealing of truths, because it is only through these that you may
The Receiving Tower was another favourite. Dark. Post-apocalyptic.
Timeless. I felt like I’d discovered an enclave at the end of an
untrodden track in McCarthy’s The Road.
"Back atop the ice, night
falls, replacing the day’s darkness with something worse. Away from the
illumination of the receiving tower, night is an even blacker shade of
dark, and I crave a new word for it, crave a vocabulary I have mostly
forgotten, words that could have described more than the simplest
night, snow, ice, failure, all of which have more than one degree. I
have to keep walking, one crooked step at a time, or I will freeze.
Everything I have left encircles me: my death, the aurora, and there,
just beyond it, the veil which obscures this life from the next."
For several days after reading this story, I listened to Nick Cave’s track
Grinderman (on repeat). That’s what this story felt like. That’s how
powerful it was. "The parting of veils between one world and another", is a theme which
recurs throughout this collection with Bell not only experimenting with
form and language but also breaking through genre boundaries. making it
impossible to label (and because I don’t like labels I’m not going to
try). And while every story can be read as a many-layered puzzle, this
never detracts from the story-telling, which is superb.
|Diane Becker is
pretty flawed. Nevertheless, she has short stories/poetry in The Pygmy
Giant, 6S, 6S Vol2, Metazen, flashquake; forthcoming in Ink, Sweat
& Tears. She was longlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize 2010
and is deputy editor of The Short Review.
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Matt Bell is the author of How They Were Found, as well as three chapbooks, Wolf Parts (Keyhole Press), The Collectors (Caketrain Press), and How the Broken Lead the Blind (Willows Wept Press). His fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Hayden's Ferry Review, Willow Springs, Unsaid, and American Short Fiction, and has been selected for inclusion in anthologies such as Best American Mystery Stories 2010 and Best American Fantasy 2. His book reviews and critical essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, American Book Review, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is also the editor of The Collagist and of Dzanc's Best of the Web anthology series. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with his wife Jessica.
with Matt Bell