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How the Broken Lead the Blind

Matt Bell

" She realizes that they will eventually crash, that this exhilarating movement is temporary. Freed to do anything, the woman decides that she and the dog will become the causes of crashes, great accidental artists whose canvas is the street, whose paint is in their own bodies, whose masterpieces are being created right now..."

Reviewed by Steven Wingate

So many short shorts veer toward willful absurdity for its own sake, but Matt Bell’s How the Broken Lead the Blind manages to get beyond that stereotype in ways that will reward the reader. Bell does not veer toward pyrotechnics, as so many practitioners of this burgeoning subgenre do, but maintains the authorial discipline to give us thick, complex insights into human wants and confusions. 

Many of these stories take place in a personal limbo, on a razor’s edge where things could turn out well or turn out badly. We don’t usually stick around to learn the result, but Bell gives us enough to go on. In the title story, a blind woman whose seeing eye dog has been spoiled from too many treats goes running and experiences a delicious loss of control before her inevitable crash. On a sentence level throughout the collection, Bell finds moments like these and uses propulsive, almost metrical language—often with skillful short sentences—to create from them the sense of foreboding and imminent surprise we have come to expect from flash fiction. 

It is all too easy, in the tiny spaces the subgenre provides, to succumb to its temptations: relying on foreboding, summing people up, dismissing them, or ridiculing them for their lack of self-understanding. But Bell, to his credit, refrains almost entirely from easy potshots and maintains respect for the unknown lives of his characters. (The Present, a bit flippant and out of kilter with the rest of the collection, is the lone exception). He creates a sense that his characters are stuck in a murky purgatory and waiting—mostly with a resigned but edgy patience—to see whether the next day holds an opportunity for clarity. When we get to the end of their stories we feel we’ve been given a snapshot of the moment that most clearly exemplifies their struggles, yet that leaves us with something left to explore in their inner lives. A quote from The Trophy Wife exemplifies this approach well: 

"Each statuette is frozen between one motion and the next, a pose that tells you nothing. It is impossible to know what will happen next when you only see the middle of the story. This is the moment right before victory becomes failure, or when a sure strike turns into a gutter ball." 

This territory is becoming traditional—and perhaps even hackneyed—for the short-short, and I am happy to say that in How the Broken Lead the Blind I learned more about Bell's characters than the surface tension of this frozen pose would suggest. 

Bell tills the soil of flash fiction well, with great awareness of the subgenre's capabilities for peering efficiently into the lives of his characters. But we learn considerably more than nothing about them; from the well-rendered contours of their silence and their stuck-ness, we learn enough to yield a probing, satisfying literary experience.

Read one of the stories from this collection on Storyglossia

 Steven Wingate's short story collection Wifeshopping won the 2007 Bakeless Prize for fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2008. He teaches at the University of Colorado.
Steven's other Short Reviews: Marianne Villanueva "The Mayor of the Roses"

Geoffrey Forsyth "In the Land of the Free"


PublisherWillows Wept Press

Publication Date: April 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Author bio: Matt Bell has authored two chapbooks, The Collectors and How the Broken Lead the Blind, and his fiction has appeared or is upcoming in Conjunctions, Meridian, Gulf Coast, Caketrain, Barrelhouse, Monkeybicycle, and Keyhole. He is part of the Hobart web editing team and of the Dzanc Writer in Residence Program. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Read an interview with Matt Bell

Buy this book (used or new) from:

The Publisher's Website: Willows WEpt (SOLD OUT)

The Author's website: MDBell.com - Free PDF Download

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