How They Were Found
 by Matt Bell

Keyhole Press
2010, Paperback

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"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.

However 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:

"As 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 someone whole."

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 be judged."

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.

Read a story from this collection at Willow Springs

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.

Diane's other Short Reviews: Cliff Garstang "In An Uncharted Country"

Susan Wicks "Roll Up for the Arabian Derby"

Andrew Hurley "The Unusual Death of Julie Christie"
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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.

Read an interview with Matt Bell