Wednesday, May 29, 2013

(Review) Matt Bell's "How They Were Found"

"How They Were Found" 
by Matt Bell
Keyhole Press Books

I've been on a kick recently, trying to find short story collections by little-known authors or those better known on the far outskirts of the literary canon, people pushing beyond just pure narrative and reconfiguring text to suit their own needs. Matt Bell's "How They Were Found" sounded like something I would enjoy immensely, if only for the imagination if not for the writing. As far as I'm concerned, he delivered on all counts.

The majority of the collection (13 stories total) are longer pieces than I'm typically used to reading, but each piece was as engaging, if not more so, than the one that preceded it, which was a nice surprise. Often a collection can lose steam towards the final push if the pieces aren't placed properly, and while I was less enthused by two or three of the stories, the remaining ones made me an instant fan and I will certainly be checking out more of his work.

"The Cartographer's Girl" was a wonderful introduction, utilizing map notations and symbols in an effort to deconstruct a past relationship, of which there is still some mystery left lingering in the air.

X is the store where he bought the ring he never got to give her.
X is the place where he planned to propose, where he already made the reservation.
X is the speech he rehearsed, that he practiced saying slowly, carefully, so that she would not mishear even a single syllable.
X is nowhere, X is now, X is never mind.
X is everything that ever mattered. 
X is all he has left."

"The Receiving Tower" seemed to be after some great "event," putting us in a snowy region with a small battalion of soldiers who were slowly losing their minds and their memories, forgetting not only their names, but their entire histories and how they ended up where they are.

"As I remember it - which is not well - young Kerr was the first to grow dim. We'd find him high in the tower's listening room, cursing at the computers, locking up console after console by failing to enter his password correctly. At night, he wandered the barracks, holding a framed portrait of his son and daughter, asking us if we knew their names, if we remembered how old they were. This is when one of us would remove the photograph from its frame so that he could read the fading scrawl on the back, the inked lines he eventually wore off by tracing them over and over and over with this fingers, after which there was no proof to quiet his queries."

"His Last Great Gift" was an unbelievably dark piece about 19th-Century minister building a machine that would be the supposed coming of God. More than just a commentary on religion through science fiction tropes, Bell does a great job of explicating the relationships between the members of this religious sect as their lives come into constant contact with each other.

"He says, When God created the world, did he try over and over and over again until he got it right? Are there castaway worlds littering the cosmos, retarded with fire and ice and failed life thrashing away in the clay? 

No, there are not.

When God came to save this world, did he impregnate all of Galilee, hoping that one of those seeds would grow up to be a Messiah?

No. What god needs, God makes, and it only takes the once."

But it is "Dredge" that curled my toes back the most out of this entire collection. We follow along with the narrator as he first finds a body in a lake, removes the body, and takes it home with him, taking off on some kind of twisted detective noir tale in suburbia. Truly one of the creepiest things I've read and I appreciated the deep psychological explication of the character as things move along. While a "normal" person may not agree with every action that occurs, there's an understanding that comes by the final page that's disturbingly sweet.

There are several other solid stories here ("An Index of How Our Family Was Killed" was a particularly inspired piece), but these were the ones that really stood out to me. The entire collection as a whole is really solid and even the longer pieces didn't make me feel like I was trudging through them; I was genuinely enjoying them. "How They Were Found" is highly unsettling and highly enjoyable. I'd scoop up everything of his that you can find.


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