Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Stories of Matt Bell: The Lost and the Found

My association with writer Matt Bell is based on a few interactions via social media, as well as a brief meeting and hello at this year's AWP festival. Last year, Jeremy selected His Last Great Gift (published in Conjunctions) as one of the first featured stories for Instafiction. I had never heard of Bell before this, and I was stunned by the depth of the story, a tale of a religious sect leader and the creation of a mysterious electronic messiah. After we linked to this piece, Bell immediately reached out to share his enthusiasm for our project, and I took to discovering more of his work. While Twitter interactions do not constitute a representation of someone's personality, I was doubly fascinated with his work (he's an editor for Dzanc Books as well as the literary magazine The Collagist) and his devotion to promoting literary excellence. He has published dozens of stories in a variety of journals, and has made quite a name for himself in the world of small presses and independent literature. As I mentioned before, I had the chance to meet him at AWP 2012, and I picked up a copy of How They Were Found, his debut story collection. Why am I putting so much emphasis on these small personal details? I'm doing so because his stories, while amazing on their own, take on even more significance when Bell's work to make great stories more widely read and appreciated is understood.

How They Were Found contains stories that glide between various genres while adhering to standard narratives and deliberately deconstructed forms, and sometimes manage to combine all of these ideas at the same time. For example, the book opens with "The Cartographer's Girl," a story that focuses on normally standard themes (relationships, loss, and death), but told from a decidedly non-standard point of view. The cartographer's relationship is highlighted with map legends that indicate where various landmarks of his relationship happened, and his attempt to pinpoint where the relationship has gone becomes a journey that needs to be mapped and documented. That might sound impersonal, but by using his own skills to come to terms with what happened, the cartographer's story is touching and heartbreaking.

"The cartographer compulsively maps everywhere he visits, draws on any surface he can find. At the bar down the street from his house, he draws topological renditions of the layout of the tables, of the path from his stool to the bathroom, of the distribution of waitresses or couples or smoke. There are many kinds of maps, but none of these get him any closer to where he needs to be. He keeps drawing anyway, keeps drinking too, until he feels his head begin to nod. He pays his tab, gets up to leave. If he walks home fast enough, he might be able to fall asleep without dreaming of her.

It is never enough to assume that the reader of the map will approach it with the same mindset the cartographer does. Even omitting something as simple as a north arrow can render a map useless, can cast doubts on all it's trying to communicate. Other markings are just as necessary. There must be a measurement of scale, and there must be a key so that annotations and markings can be deciphered, made useful (Bell 16-17)."

In "Wolf Parts," the idea of the "deliberately deconstructed" takes on new, graphic meanings. The tale of Little Red Riding Hood is not only told from various points of view, but is constantly stripped and manipulated. This is done so that by the end, the standard fairy tale is not just re-imagined, but infused with new levels of violence, philosophical meanings, and psychological implications. Passages of intense violence are written alongside passages of hilarity, so the reader also has to take in a mixture of new emotions as well as the new documentation of the classic fairy tale.

"An axe is a knife is a pair of sewing scissors: Tools as weapons, weapons as tools. Ways to cut yourself out from inside a wolf, or, in other circumstances, to cut your way back in.

Red and her grandmother had seen this trick before, and so could not be taken by surprise. Red refused to leave the path, the grandmother declined to open the door, and when they each questioned the wolf through the bolted wood, they already knew the cheap answers he would offer. The only one surprised was the wolf, who knew not where these women had gotten their knives, nor where they had learned the sharp skill with which they wielded them (Bell 151)."

Bell is also skilled at creating his own modern fables. There is a wonderful metaphor in "The Leftover," in which a couple breaks up and the woman finds herself living with a small version of her ex, a version that engages in the very actions she made him quit. Hundreds of stories have been written about breakups and their aftermaths, and this version shows how a simple idea can change the obvious into something unique. It's sweet and detailed, and after awhile the strange scenario feels normal as the woman mentally explores the changes in her life and the qualities of her ex.

"During this same time period, she comes to understand that it's not only the bad habits Jeff quit that make up Little Jeff. There are also qualities that Allison forgot she even missed, because they've been gone so long or because they disappeared from her and Jeff's relationship without announcing their departure. She notices the long absence of these traits only when they reemerge: Little Jeff writes poems on the backs of take out receipts and on yellow sticky notes, just like Jeff used to do. She finds them in odd places, as if Little Jeff doesn't understand that it might be more romantic to put them on her side of the bed or on her nightstand (Bell 172-173)."

The above citations are examples of Bell's gift of careful humor in odd places, but his work is also capable of serious, gripping accounts. One of my favorites in the collection is "Dredge," a mystery about a troubled man's attempt to find out who killed a young woman. His desire to do good is complicated by horrible memories from his childhood, and the fact that he embarks on his mission entirely alone, even going so far as to keep the woman's body in his freezer. For every step he takes in the right direction, circumstances and his own clouded personality force him to take steps back. There's no doubt that he's sincere, but his mental state makes him dangerous to himself and others. The story leads to a definite climax, but along the way, the reader is torn between sympathy and nervousness for what could conceivably happen.

"In the garage, he tries to lift the girl's tank top to get to the skin hidden underneath, but the fabric is frozen to her flesh. He can't tell if the sound of his efforts is the ripping of ice or of skin. He tries touching her through her clothes, but she's too far gone, distant with cold. He shuts the freezer door and leaves her again in the dark, but not before he explains what he's doing for her. Not before he promises to find the person who hurt her, to hurt this person himself (Bell 122)."

Another exploration of genre comes in "The Receiving Tower," a nightmarish story told in a small, claustrophobic setting. A group of soldiers are losing their memories while stationed at a desolate outpost under the command of an abusive, murderous captain. The original war is vague and possibly not even a threat anymore, but the icy surroundings and lack of communication makes situation even worse than any potential battle. There are elements of sci-fi and future dystopia, but the emotions and tensions come from the everyday activities of the lost soldiers.

"As I remember it--which is not well--young Kerr was the first to grow dim. We'd find him high in the tower's listening room, cursing at the computers, locking up console after console by failing to enter his password correctly. At night, he wandered the barracks, holding a framed portrait of his son and daughter, asking us if we knew their names, if we remembered how old they were. This is when one of us would remove the photograph from its frame so that he could read the fading scrawl on the back, the inked lines he eventually wore off by tracing them over and over with his fingers, after which there was no proof to quiet his queries (Bell 27)."

These are just general synopses of a few of How They Were Found's stories, but I feel they give an excellent representation of the work as a whole. The genre-bending and originality are beautiful, but having followed Bell for this last year, I feel this work represents something more. Bell is one of many writers who create amazing literary art that is often overlooked by mainstream readers of fiction. These particular stories have links to various genres, and prove that independent publishers and journals aren't in the market solely for exclusive purposes. How They Were Found was a stunning experience, but there's more to this than a simple review: The collection was published by an imprint of Dzanc Books, which offers this as part of their mission statement:

"Dzanc Books not only publishes amazing books, but works to champion literature and writing in the schools, and is fully committed to developing educational programs. Dzanc funds and runs workshops and Writer-in-Residence programs in several cities, including Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and New York. Dzanc has also set up a low-cost writing instruction program for beginning and emerging writers by connecting them with accomplished authors through the innovative Dzanc Creative Writing Sessions. Dzanc also sponsors the Dzanc Prize for community service, and works in partnership with literary journals to advance their readership at every level."

Simply put, I'm hoping that this review, along with the curative work of Instafiction, not only shows that literary writing can appeal to the mainstream, but that there are often a lot of overlooked benefits to supporting small presses. Works and writers like Bell are deserving of more attention, representing a world of literature that has its dedicated readers, but could appeal to so many more audiences.

Work Cited:
Bell, Matt. How They Were Found. Copyright 2010 by Matt Bell.

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