Sample Book Reviews

Immaculate Automata
Corey Mesler

How They Were Found
Matt Bell
Keyhole Books
256 pages; paper, $13.95

With this, his first full-length collection of short fiction, Matt Bell leaps onto the metafiction stage with audacity and brio and an astonishing technical range, and establishes himself quickly as a fearless artificer and one with seemingly no limits to his reach or his imagination. The extraordinary variety here is impressive, a mad compilation of disparate but equally imposing parts, that, rather than making the collection seem loose and baggy, helps keep the reader off balance, which is not a bad way to read good fiction. Let’s say it is an ideal way to read good fiction, especially fiction this inventive and challenging and unique.

It’s instructive that Bell begins the collection with a story about maps, “The Cartographer’s Girl.” In it the protagonist seeks a map that will assuage loss. “Even the compasses that break,” he says, “that learn some new way, none ever point him to her…. He is making the wrong kind of maps, knows he is, but can’t stop himself.” It’s possible the author is telling us, the journey may be without conclusion or closure, and it won’t be from A to Z. In the very next story, he says, “[T]here are no more signals, no signs of either friend or foe.”

Most of the tales here are what one might call “high concept” stories, revolving around science fiction or fairy-tale sortilege, “what if” tales built around cerebral or avant-garde ideas, around the fantastic as represented in fiction often by experimentation. For instance, “The Leftover” is about a woman who has just broken up with her boyfriend only to have a shrunken, mute version of him suddenly appear in her apartment. This simulacrum, she figures out, is made up of all the things she did not like about her ex, all the aspects of him she asked him to excise. It is a dynamite premise and Bell’s relating of it is lively, funny, and smart. Another story, “Wolf Parts,” is a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” a dance, a jazz riff on the many permutations or elements of the story. It rips the fairy tale open and rearranges the body parts on an examining table. In this case, the author may have stretched his premise a little too thin. The deconstruction goes on a little too long. It’s a rare misstep in the book. Bell is consistently clever, and in a good way. This is not cleverness for the sake of cleverness, because he has such a firm grip on narrative, and because he knows how to entertain, like a table magician who can confound you no matter how closely you watch.

How They Were Found is a book of marvels. Its best tales work like splendid, immaculate automata, like “Dredge,” which is a sort of sly, jesuitical Psycho (1960) story. It manages to be chilling and touching at the same time. It begins, “The drowned girl drips everywhere, soaking the cheap cloth of the Ford’s back seat.” Bell is masterful with first lines; his pull you in, inexorably, as if daring you to stop, while promising you much if you continue. Bell moves effortlessly through his many styles, from neoteric and poetic to deadpan prosaic to ironic fantasia.

This would be mere showing off, cold execution of theories of writing that exclude the reader, were it not for Bell’s warmth, the humanity underlying almost every story in the book. He is inviting you along, even if, as he admits, the maps we formerly trusted don’t help us here. In “Ten Scenes from a Movie Called Mercy,” he says, “Resist denouement, resist the solving of mysteries and the revealing of truths, because it is only through these that you may be judged.” Someone once said that plot is what they take out of your book to make a movie.

"With this, his first full-length collection of short fiction, Matt Bell leaps onto the metafiction stage."

Titles often are good signifiers of an author’s intentions. How They Were Found not only refers to Homer and Langley Collyer, the eccentric brothers whose story was brilliantly related by E. L. Doctorow in his most recent novel, but it could also refer to all of Bell’s peculiar, outsider, moonstruck characters. They were found by Bell himself; it often feels as if the author is discovering them along with the reader. Yet, Bell is the progenitor; he is here to tell you their stories. And Bell makes his Collyer brothers story, “The Collectors,” a worthy addendum to Doctorow’s by burrowing into it, much the way the discoverers of the Collyers’s bodies had to burrow into their home’s accumulated garbage to find their bodies. Some pages in “The Collectors” are lists of the things the brothers had packed into their crumbling mansion, as if by simple enumeration of what they left behind we could better understand them. The narrator, who may be reading the entrails of the brothers’ orts and oddments, says, “There is so much to see here, but only in fragments, in peripheries. Every step across the floorboards brings this house of cards closer to collapse, and so I must move backward and forward in time…until I have found what I am looking for. I am a collector, too, but it is not their possessions I have clutched and hoarded. I am holding Homer’s face in my hands….”

The third story in the collection, “His Last Great Gift,” is Bell’s tour-de-force. It is the story of Reverend Spear, who has been given a commission by angels to create a new messiah, a clockwork messiah. The construction that he oversees is somewhere between the Manhattan Project and the conjuration of a Golem. He needs a new Virgin Mary, and finds one in a nearly innocent parishioner, and he, perhaps foolishly, casts himself as the new Joseph. The Reverend Spear, as the instigator/scientist (one fights the temptation to say “mad scientist”) tells the crew, “This New Motor, it will be the beginning of a new race, unfallen and perfect, characterized by a steamwork perfection our world is only now capable of creating. God has shown the Electricizers and they have shown me and I have shown you, and now you are making it so.”

The British philosopher R. G. Collingwood said, “Magical activity is a kind of dynamo supplying the mechanism of practical life with the emotional current that drives it.” Magic and emotion get together and foxtrot in Bell’s best work.

The final story, “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed,” is one of the book’s best performances. It is an alphabetical list, beginning with “A brother, a father, a mother, a sister,” and ending with Zero. Along the way, the author says, “Victim is a broad term, a generalization, an umbrella under which we are all gathered at one time or another.”

With How They Were Found, Matt Bell joins the company of the great fabulists like Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino, or closer to home, the American masters, Steven Millhauser, John Crowley, and Thomas Pynchon. In reading this collection, you will be forgiven if you have to constantly remind yourself that this is the author’s first full-length book. These tales are mysterious, recondite without being just intellectual exercises, extravagant and fanciful, and ultimately winning. And Matt Bell’s control of his material is imposing and his spectrum often dazzling. This is a collection of verbal virtuosity, and a flat-out wonderful book: it is a book full of wonders.

Corey Mesler is the author of four novels, two books of short stories, two full-length collections of poetry, and many chapbooks of prose and poetry. He has been nominated for a Pushcart numerous times, and two of his poems have been chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. He also claims to have written “Do the Freddy.” With his wife he owns Burke’s Book Store in Memphis, Tennessee.


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