How They Were Found by Matt Bell

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The characters in Matt Bell’s first full-length collection of stories, How They Were Found, often seem to be separated from the rest of the world by filmy gauze. You get the idea that a real world surrounds these folks, but they are estranged from that reality by a loose mesh that keeps them from seeing their surroundings clearly or engaging with them fully. As Bell writes of the main character in “His Last Great Gift,” it is “as if his ears are filled with cotton or wax, as if this is something in the way of true communication, and the real world seems just as distant, just as difficult to navigate.” Often neither the characters’ names nor their physical features are revealed. Little information is provided about their past. They are just there, searching—or, as the book’s title suggests, waiting to be found. This is not to say that the prose itself is cloudy; it allows us more than enough peeks at beauty, mystery, playfulness, and well-constructed absurdity to make this collection satisfying on many levels.

How They Were Found

By Matt Bell
Keyhole Press

In the opening story, “The Cartographer’s Girl,” a mapmaker searches for the nameless girl of the title—a sleepwalker who grows skinnier as her nocturnal walks grow longer. On the nights she surreptitiously slips out of bed, he walks the city, finds her, and brings her home, until she disappears for good. The story begins with the cartographer marking “the place where they first met . . . where they kissed for the first time . . . and anyplace he told her he loved her” on maps with graphic keys. He continues tracking her and “compulsively maps everywhere he visits, drawing on any surface he can find.” For years he remains true to her, searching, believing that she eventually becomes skinny enough to walk “right through into some new place where whatever was hurting her couldn’t follow.” The character’s quest is obsessive and compelling, and the narrator’s play with the idea of maps and mapping is intriguing: “He annotates until the city appears as a bloated, twisted thing, depicted by a map too full of language and memory to be useful to anyone but himself. Until there are spaces scattered everywhere, one of which will be the right one.” And just when it begins to feel that this captivating search might go on too long, that we know how it will end, we are given a peek through the gauze, and the story lets us know that there is more to the fictional world Bell has created than we’ve been seeing on the page: “Somewhere the city opens, like a fissure or a flower, and, inside, she is waiting.”

“The Receiving Tower” tells the story of men stationed in an icy, desolate unnamed place where they are attempting to receive satellite messages about an unnamed war that probably ended some time ago. The men are waiting to be sent to the coast for transport home. As they wait, their minds grow progressively dimmer. They have to change their passwords to “password” to remember them. Eventually some of them forget their past, their name, and even who they are, as their maniacal captain kills off various members of the crew. In a “final act of defiance,” the first-person narrator climbs the tower to run through the spectrum of frequencies in an attempt to hear something. When his effort meets with “nothing but the hum and hiss of the omnipresent static, a blizzard of meaningless sound,” he plots his escape. His treacherous journey ends as he crashes onto the ice, where he runs out of words and the story ends, literally, midsentence.

Probably the most ambitious of the stories is “His Last Great Gift,” the tale of Spear, a minister who is directed by “electricizers” and the specters of Jefferson, Rush, Murray, and Franklin to build a contraption they call the “new motor” that will become the messiah. Divided into sections titled as numbered revelations, the narrative follows Spear galvanizing his parishioners, holding conversations with ghosts, searching for a new Mary (Mother of God), finding a false Mary, supervising the building of the motor, losing his followers and his family, and finally finding the true Mary and taking the messiah on the road with her. The combination of the lustful Spear, the dead scientists, and the construction of the new motor with “its array of sliding panels and connecting tubes and gears” gives the impression that The Scarlet Letter has somehow collided with Steampunk literature and a ghost story.

“Wolf Parts” is a play on “Little Red Riding Hood,” beginning with “Red” cutting her way out of the wolf’s belly. “Dredge,” perhaps the most realistic and traditional narrative, is the frightening tale of a disturbed man who finds the body of a young girl in a lake and can’t bear to part with her, so he keeps her in his freezer and then goes about trying to find her killer. This story deservedly won a place in Best American Mystery Stories 2010.

If the stories described sound a bit reminiscent of Kafka, Beckett, Kundera, and members of the Metafiction community of the 1960s and 70s (even Faulkner when it comes to clinging to dead bodies), it is because Bell almost seems to be channeling these authors to write new stories. Note the wording: not derivative stories, new stories. Much of Bell’s invention comes from experimenting with already tested forms, styles, patterns, and techniques until something new and fresh emerges. His best stories seem to have shaken off the echoes of predecessors to be strikingly distinctive and engaging.

My favorite piece in How They Were Found is the chilling final story, “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed,” where the first-person narrator uses a straightforward tone and a listlike form to chronicle the murder of his family. The piece reads like a combination police blotter, autopsy report, and haunting narrative poem rich with sensual images. But lest readers become mesmerized by the beauty of the story, the sentences and paragraphs in the list are arranged like an index, grouped in alphabetical order, reminding readers that this is not the whole picture, only a reference. Bell’s definition of an index, provided early in the story, seems to capture what he is trying to convey in this finely crafted collection, his catalog of stories: “an index is a collection of echoes, each one suggesting a whole only partially sensed.”

In most of these fourteen stories Bell skillfully reminds us that if we stick with it, opaqueness can give way to a brilliance beyond—even if we don’t always complete grasp the meaning of that brilliance. In other words, he seems to be telling us that despite their complexity, the stories in How They Were Found are simply glimpses through the gauze.