The OF Blog: Matt Bell, How They Were Found

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Matt Bell, How They Were Found

How They Were Found by Matt Bell is the debut collection by a talented story writer whose work often straddles the gap between realism and fantasy or horror. Formally innovative, his fiction has appeared in Conjunctions and Best American Mystery Stories. The stories range from the tale of a nineteenth-century minister creating a mechanical messiah to the documenting of a strange and failing military outpost. In advance praise for the collection, Laird Hunt called it “fierce, unflinching, funny.”

This is the second book selected for review by Larry Nolen, Paul Charles Smith, and Jeff VanderMeer. You can read the entries on this book by the other members here and here.

To begin, a key:  ⦾ is the place where the cartographer first met the girl. ⦁ is the place where they kissed for the first time.  ⊙ is any place he told her he loved her, anywhere she once said it back.


Even the compasses that break, that learn some new way, none never point him to her.  At least not yet.  It is not their fault, but his.  He is making the wrong kind of map, knows he is, but can't stop himself.  All the maps he's made since she left have been wrong, but the cartographer does not know the kind of map he needs. ("The Cartographer's Girl," p. 14)
I have followed Matt Bell's career for the past couple of years with some degree of interest.  I found his 2007 story, "Mario's Three Lives," (republished in Best American Fantasy 2) to be thought-provoking, quick-hitting, with a wry observation about life when the cameras are not on and we do not have to perform in front of a crowd.  One of the stories in his recently-released debut collection, "The Cartographer's Girl" (quoted above), made my longlist of stories I had marked for consideration for inclusion in the aborted Best American Fantasy 4.  And yet despite the excellent stories he has written over the past few years, How They Were Found proved to be a surprisingly problematic read.

The highlight of this collection definitely is the first tale, "The Cartographer's Girl."  Originally appearing in the journal Gulf Coast, this story immediately captured my attention soon after I began my series editorship for Best American Fantasy 4.  From the first paragraph, with the cartographic symbols used to signify the narrator's relationship with his ex-girlfriend and the times and places where they moved into, through, and out of each other's life, to latter passages where it felt as though narrative was beginning to dissolve into an intense, interior mindscape, Bell's story captivated me.  The deliberately formal, detached narrative set the stage well for the story to explore an interior vista where the symbols expressed on a map correlate precisely with the emotions that the narrator experiences as he explores where he became "lost," both in the symbolic landscape of his romantic past and also in regards to his current position.  Bell's more intense, forceful conclusion reinforces the sense of distant confusion and slight obsession that are hinted at in the beginning.  "The Cartographer's Girl" is one of the better-structured and executed short stories that I have read this year and it certainly is a testament to Bell's potential as a writer.

However, several of the other stories in this thirteen story collection are much weaker than "The Cartopgrapher's Girl."  The second story, "The Receiving Tower," starts off promising, as there is a hint of a deceptive identity within the first-person narrator's point of view, but Bell drags out its execution, weakening the power of the narrative.  "The Receiving Tower" is also emblematic of some of the weaknesses in Bell's short fiction here, as there is so little variation in the PoVs of the characters that populate his stories that after reading several of them in a sitting, the overall effect can be monotonous, dulling the impact that might have been felt if some of his narrative techniques (detached, cool characters, horrific situations couched in ordinary language, intense moments clouded by off-hand, sometimes wry narrative asides) had not been repeated so many times in these stories.

When I began writing this review, I remember having a generally positive impression of these stories as a whole.  But as I began re-reading the passages, I began to remark to myself that beyond occasional glimpses, the stories lacked a sense of vitality.  There were no memorable characters, with the possible exception of the cartographer.  Everything felt cold, precise, clinical even.  Bell certainly marches his characters through their situations, intriguing as some of them might be, but too often it was as if I were watching robots trudging along, devoid of the spark of life that would enliven these competently-created narratives.  Perhaps this is what Bell aimed to achieve, this sort of detached view of reality, where the characters' near-total lifelessness juxtaposes with some truly unsettling situations.  Sometimes, such stories work and to some extent, Bell's stories do create some passing interest.  However, on a re-read, there was nothing truly substantial behind the well-crafted story structures.  There was no "punch," no metaphorical kick to the junk that would make the reader pay close attention.  I do believe there is quite a bit of potential for Bell to expand his narrative palette, to develop more life-like characters to fit in with his narrative choices, but for now, I am left lamenting that the technically good How They Were Found contains too few gripping moments to help make each story stand out as a vital narrative.


James said...

I am liking these reviews, it is interesting to see whether or not the three of you end up coming to a similar conclusion or going off in different directions.

I have never heard of Matt Bell before (a surprise, I'm sure) and have never been in danger of running out and putting down money for one of his collections, but if I was, these reviews would have done well in keeping me from doing so.

On the other hand, there are a few of his stories available online (The Receiving Tower, Dredge, Mario's Three Lives) and since it appears the worst way to read his stories is straight through, reading a smattering of his fiction here and there may work out well.

Larry Nolen said...

Glad you're enjoying them, although I purposely kept mine a bit vaguer this time so I could have the focus be squarely on a few issues that I suspected I might approach from an angle different from what Jeff or Paul might do. We don't discuss our takes until after the reviews are written, so I didn't know for sure just how in-depth they would go. That makes it even more fun, no?

But yes, do look into his fiction, even if it might sound as though each of us were lukewarm in some form or fashion over some of the stories.

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