July 2011

Jennifer Taylor


How They Were Found by Matt Bell

Matt Bell's impressive debut collection, How They Were Found, focuses on protagonists wrestling with abandonment. He's crafted intricate microcosms where everything happens and nothing is off limits or impossible. A couple breaks up and the woman discovers a lookalike bearing certain traits of her ex has moved into her apartment. Little Red Riding Hood visits her grandmother and encounters the wolf with varying and violent results each time. Bell depicts people struggling with being on the outside of societal norms while attempting to give their lives meaning. They are the ones left behind. Some are able to cope with their overwhelming loneliness, while others desperately try to connect with someone, even if that person happens to be a corpse.  

In "The Cartographer's Girl," the main character turns his occupation as a mapmaker into an obsession as he searches for his missing girlfriend. The maps that he draws relate to their lives together -- where they used to go and possibly where she might be now, waiting for him to find her. "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."      

"The Receiving Tower" shows the slow disintegration of men held in the grip of a sadistic commander. Their only salvation would be to completely lose their memories, thereby allowing their lives to be erased, yet Maon, the point of view character, attempts to remember something about himself along with the men he once knew in the troop. He valiantly tries to recall the nature of their mission, but that, too, is beyond his grasp. The leader taunts the men with their dearth of information and reminds them they don't know anything about the others, or, most importantly, about themselves.  

"Dredge" is about Punter, a fraught young man who spent time in juvie and happens upon a high school girl drowned in a pond. Instead of leaving her body where he found it, he takes her with him. People typically shy away from him, and though she's dead, she's a silent companion; Punter can count on her to stay with him. Her new home is in his large outdoor freezer where Punter frequently visits her, despite the threat of thawing. Punter learns about the life she had from the news and decides to solve the case. He thinks that if he's able to uncover what happened he could change his own distorted history, even if he won't ever be able to fully accept it. 

"The Leftover" is a quirky examination of acceptance. After Jeff and Allison break up, she awakes to find a man in her apartment. He's quite familiar, despite his strangely diminutive stature. Even though he can't speak and has quite a few nasty habits, Allison finds herself feeling grateful for his sudden presence. "It doesn't take her long to recognize the pattern, to see that what Little Jeff is made of is all that she made her first Jeff quit or change or give up." 

"The Collectors" is set in the Collyer dwelling where in real life Homer and his brother Langley lived in squalor, trapped beneath mounds of their beloved possessions. Bell imagines the brothers first began their hoarding empire after the death of their father who left the family years before. "If only you gathered enough, then maybe you could build a father. Gather a mother up in your arms, like all those piles of porcelain knick-knacks. Design a family from things best left behind. Replace birth with theft, life with hoarding, death with destruction." 

"An Index of How Our Family Was Killed" relates the tale of a family's death in a somewhat unusual manner. It's told in alphabetical order from the perspective of one of the dead. "Accidents happen, but what happened to us was not an accident." 

Bell doesn't shy away from the ugliness of his character's lives. Unlike many writers, he isn't afraid to reveal their true natures. Life doesn't have a happy or pleasant outcome. His fiction is honest and raw, frightening and powerful. His writing is lovely and moving -- a perfect pairing for the grisly moments his protagonists face.  

How They Were Found by Matt Bell
Keyhole Press
ISBN: 978-0982151259
256 pages