“As soon as the wolf forced himself inside her, she sprung her trap, showing him that she too knew what it meant to consume someone whole.”
The thirteen stories in Matt Bell’s first full-length collection, How They Were Found, are of differing payloads and sizes, but his persistent and precise control keeps them all working at the right speeds, building optimal momentum and shattering open only when he wants them to.
Bell brings us everything: symbolism, futurism à la David Ohle, devastation, surrealism, scenic energy, fractured fairytales, consumption, struggle, claustrophobia, and family decay. But this is not to say How They Were Found spreads itself too thin or is too chaotically varied; Bell knows how to keep his world in check, his every word balanced against another, delicately, like a system of weights.
We see Bell’s powerful management of language even in the first piece, “The Cartographer’s Girl”, where a man maps the symbolic units of his loss:
Ground truth disappears, is replaced by something else, by the truth as meaning, as yellow brick road, as key to a lock to a door to an entrance. He widens the error in his map, one phrase at a time, each annotation requiring its own accommodations. He writes their truth upon the city, and the city bends to it, its streets and avenues warping around his words: This is the place where we met. This is the place where we fell in love, and so is this one and this one and this one.
Even when presenting easily misunderstood characters like Punter, in the story “Dredge,” Bell tips a reader nearly over the emotional edge without ever letting us fall:
He wasn’t bad anymore. He was a person with a disorder, with a trauma. No one had ever believed him about this, especially not the therapist in juvie, who had urged Punter to open up, who had gotten angry when he couldn’t. They didn’t believe him when he said he’d already told them everything he had inside him.
When Punter pictures the place where other people keep their feelings, all he sees is his own trapped scream, imagined as a devouring ball of sound, hungry and hot in his guts.
In Bell’s stories people drown, they get lost and buried and destroyed, yet we don’t feel wet or lost or suffocated: We feel pained and wanton and struck, as in “Ten Scenes From a Movie Called Mercy”:
She curls onto her side, turning away from the sunshine slicing uselessly through the surface of the river. Underwater, everything is the same color, and what looked like a riverbed of pebbles from the shore appears here as layers of baby teeth, their cavities worn white again by the flow of water unceasing.
He will not allow us to get lost, has spent too much time rendering and maintaining that precarious space between cliff’s edge and freefall. Like Red, the main character of “Wolf Parts,” we are shown the power of order:
As commanded, she climbed into the bed naked, speaking in soft, mock-innocent syllables, pretending not to notice that the figure in the nightgown was not her grandmother, so that the great, hairy wolf would feel safe to reveal his true intentions. She waited, polite and acquiescent, and as soon as the wolf forced himself inside her, she sprung her trap, showing him that she too knew what it meant to consume someone whole.
Portions of How They Were Found appeared as the chapbooks How the Broken Lead the Blind (Willows Wept Press) and The Collectors (Caketrain), and though they clearly indicated Bell’s skill and magic, they did not fully demonstrate how he could consume the reader, how he could become the whale that swallows us whole and lets us live inside his belly. We read as Homer lives in “The Collectors”:
Homer experiences the lack of guideposts, of landmarks, of bread crumbs. He knows his brother is dead or dying and that finding him will change nothing, and even though he wants to turn around he’s not sure how. He tries to remember if he climbed the stairs or if he crawled upward or if he is still on the first floor of the house, twisted and turned inside it. He tries to remember the right and the left, the up and the down, the falls and the getting back up, but when he does the memories come all at once or else as one static image of moving in the dark, like a claustrophobia of neurons.