Book review: How They Were Found, by Matt Bell

The themes of Lacan and Clark are here, but better.  In spilling out the possible meanings of the Red Riding Hood fable, Bell manages to strip out all the meanings.  We end with a story about a girl and a wolf, with icons turned back into girls and hunters, animals, women, surprises and violence. The kaleidoscopic structure of the story defies interpretation, and maybe even the possibility of interpreting.  The reader ends with a series of mysteries, like Stonehenge — inarguably compelling, but mutely and simply there.

One of the most interesting experiments in How They Were Found, "An Index of How Our Family Was Killed," is just that: an index.  It's a heartbreaking story of the last surviving members of a family plagued by murder, but presented as a list, in alphabetical order.  The format demands rigidity, but Bell works the tragedy, the claustrophobia and sense of loss and doom hanging over the compiler of the index, and makes the format work for him.  As a list, it gives you the feeling that the objects of the narrator's fear have already come, and that the long list of warnings have done no good.  This story carries something of the cold beauty and precision of mathematics, with each word carefully weighed and calculated.

A few of the stories included in this collection are not as strong — there's one about a game involving vacuum cleaners, memories and power drills that feels heavy-handed and, bookended as it is between brilliance, stands out by its lack of luster.  Mostly, however, Bell's imaginative and disciplined innovative approaches to the structural element of stories delivers over and over again.

Where he truly grabs, however, is the prose.

"Once, I thought I wanted to eat something that would end me, but now I knew I wanted something else, something approximately the opposite.  Something this woman could give me."

Passages like this lead, or drag, the reader through almost every story.  The rhythm is spot on, unhurried, and when that last line finally lands, you have to stop.  Things click and suddenly everything you've just read means a little bit more, like plugging the right variable into an equation.  Some of his sentences have the timeless feel of aphorisms, like something we've heard a hundred times before, like something that's always been there, waiting for meaning.

How They Were Found is worth a read for the quality of the prose itself, but there is also the spectacle of watching a stylistic acrobat at work.  Like anyone who tries the high-wire, Bell falls or twice, but I'll forgive him a weak point or two.  As a collection, the recurrent themes and sedate, careful style build a world well worth the walking into.

Click on the book to order direct from the publisher.  They get more money that way.
  • Click on the book to order direct from the publisher. They get more money that way.

How They Were Found is a book made out of contradictions.  Characters die left and right, but still there is hope.  Everyone is looking to stitch together a ruptured world, to map nonexistent places and open doors into them, to make sense of the senseless, but still there is careful order and architecture.  There are passionate stories about the most sensitive subjects, delivered in calm, measured prose, in carefully constructed architectures.

In the story "Wolf Parts," Bell takes the Little Red Riding Hood myth and puts it through a tumbler. Out falls a series of gems, polished stones of shape, colours and meaning. Bell builds the story out of several dozen short permutations: Red being eaten, Red eating, Red sacrificed by the villagers, and always there is howling.

"On four legs he could easily devour her, could take her in his jaws as fast as he could any deer or rabbit.  But on two?  On two she was often the one who mastered him."


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