Collection Review: Matt Bell’s Where They Were Found
In other news, I recently attended a reading sponsored by the local university of writer Matt Bell. I was thrilled to discover that Matt Bell is apparently a fairy tale enthusiast as well as a writer of innovative, often fantastical short stories. I purchased his collection How They Were Found and am happy to say that I’ve found another favorite writer to add to the list.
In How They Were Found, Bell experiments with structure as well as with subject matter. Many of his main characters stretch that tired wisdom of the likeable main character; in the creepy “Dredge,” the emotionally disturbed Punter finds a dead woman in a lake while he is fishing and takes her home with him, where he freezes her. When the authorities begin searching for her, he decides to do his own search, to avenge her himself. What the story becomes is an atypical horror tale filled with flashes of Punter’s own psychologically damaging past, and a downward spiral story in which the reader feels both repulsed and moved by Punter’s loneliness.
My favorite stories in the collection, however, stray even farther from a traditional narrative. In the surreal “Hold On to Your Vacuum,” the narrator is stuck in a game of sorts where every player is required to constantly keep one hand on their vacuum while running from Teacher, whose goal is to catch the players as they relive mostly terrible, but also some pleasant, memories and drill holes in their heads, making them begin again. The theme of memory and trying to change the past is a resonant one.
In “Wolf Parts” Bell reconstructs, again and again and again, the Red Riding Hood tale. While most retellings of this fairy tale dig out the sexual root of the story but settle on one message therein, Bell’s version explores so many aspects of sexuality in the tale that his becomes not a linear story but a story about the story.
In “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed,” the story of a family’s murderous curse is told in “a list of evidence, compiled in alphabetical order.” A haunting story that breaks down into poetry. In “The Cartographer’s Girl,” the story of the cartographer’s missing girlfriend, and his search to find her, is told with the help of his map key. Both are fine stories, made more memorable by the innovative ways in which they are told.
There is not a single story in this highly lyrical, highly original collection that I didn’t like, and few that I can say I didn’t love.