How They Were Found
October 5, 2010
Keyhole Press · Paperback · ISBN 978-0982151259
In his debut collection How They Were Found, Matt Bell draws from a wide range of genres to create stories that are both formally innovative and imaginatively rich. In one, a 19th-century minister follows ghostly instructions to build a mechanical messiah. In another, a tyrannical army commander watches his apocalyptic command slip away as the memories of his men begin to fade and fail. Elsewhere, murders are indexed, new worlds are mapped, fairy tales are fractured and retold and then fractured again. Throughout these thirteen stories, Bell’s careful prose burrows at the foundations of his characters’ lives until they topple over, then painstakingly pores over the wreckage for what rubbled humanity might yet remain to be found.
Includes the story "Dredge," a Best American Mystery Stories selection, and the story "His Last Great Gift," a Best American Short Stories Distinguished Story of 2009 and a Special Mention in the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology.
"Reminiscent of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Winter War in Tibet in its calm examination and unsettling embodiment of mental and physical extremes, How They Were Found is a dreamer’s chronicle of the loss and partial recovery of a world given over to the wrecking ball. Fierce, unflinching, funny, How They Were Found is just the book we need right now, Matt Bell just the writer.”
“How They Were Found offers a world with shifting rules, described with a lovely and deceptive simplicity. This guide shows you thirteen different types of wilderness, and you can spend all day exploring before you realize you are lost.”
"You’re a robot if the stories in Matt Bell’s debut collection don’t exhilarate, frighten, and unalterably change you. His wild manipulation of form and genre makes the bulk of contemporary fiction feel bloodless and inert in comparison, but it is Bell’s recurring arrival at something sturdy and true about human behavior that makes the stories in How They Were Found so rewarding and resonant.”
"As the stories in this debut collection add up, so do the bodies, people done in by diverse, often fantastical methods and accidents: drowning, freezing, crushing, knifing, shooting, suffocation, disease, traps, saws, dismemberment, exposure, and more. Then there are the disappearances: a cartographer’s sick girlfriend vanishes, a homunculus starts shrinking. The comparatively few characters who remain alive and present are preoccupied with others’ annihilations… Body toll notwithstanding, How They Were Found is anything but bleak. For one thing, there’s the prose: generous, urgent, rhythmic…. As the collection continues and the deaths and disappearances pile up, it becomes increasingly clear that, in the various microcosms of How They Were Found, only the tales the characters leave behind can survive their fleeting lives.”
"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.”
“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.”
"Matt Bell has built a national reputation on his own terms, completely outside the support system of New York publishing, on the strength of his stories and novellas, which are wholly original and singularly his own. He is that rare sort of writer whose work the reader would recognize even if were published anonymously. It is formally daring, high-stakes, languaged-up stuff, and (lucky us!), the best of it has finally been collected at book length. Here is some consumer advocacy: You will be a happier, more fulfilled, better entertained human being if you buy this book today.”
"In narratives that feel almost uncomfortably honest, Bell exposes unusual acts of desperation, uncovering raw, new representations of heartache and hunger… No less original or thought-provoking than contemporary fabulist stalwarts like Aimee Bender or Etgar Keret, [he] expands the scope of experimental writing."
"Bell doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of his character’s lives. Unlike many writers, he isn’t afraid to reveal their true natures… His fiction is honest and raw, frightening and powerful. His writing is lovely and moving—a perfect pairing for the grisly moments his protagonists face."
"Matt Bell is first and foremost, last and forever, a storyteller. His talent and voice and originality and gift for clarity even through twisted structures are all what make his stories work. He rehashes, he makes anew, he cuts apart and sews back together the skins of stories always told and stories never told before. He gives life to the dead, kills our sacred cows, and through it all emerges the shape of the story he aims to tell."
"You can often guess the age of an ambitious book by gauging its paralysis in the face of language’s inadequacy. How They Were Found, Matt Bell’s first full-length collection of stories, is as concerned with this problem as any book written in the last forty years… However, Bell is also an entertainer, someone who clearly takes pleasure in reading and writing. As such, his stories make their haunting an asset. The pain and the frailty of living in symbol and language become more than art. They become beautiful.”
"Bell attempts and succeeds at a crucial, yet risky, concept that’s essential to great writing: the concept of fusion and hybrid. First and foremost is the magical formula that most young writers have a hard time grasping, the fusion of style and substance. The style in this case being the fantastical elements of each story and the substance being the human connections and emotions that Bell endows his characters with. While most all of the stories in HTWF could easily be filed under the fantasy section, don’t let the nerdish connotation of the genre fool you. Bell’s characters are undoubtedly human, dealing with everyday feelings of loss, change, heartbreak, hope, ambition and discovery… How They Were Found is a triumph of a debut collection. Bell has a command over story far surpassing anyone else in his league. Don’t miss this book.”
"Matt Bell’s debut collection of short fiction covers abundant ground, from the fairy-tale deconstruction of ‘Wolf Parts’ to the imploded tale of crime and punishment contained in ‘Dredge.’ Bell’s fiction is taut and surreal, and the best stories in this collection—such as ‘Hold On To Your Vacuum,’ with its structure somewhere between dream and video game—seem both classical in their approach and utterly modern in their sensibility."
"What remains consistent through these diverse stories is the impotence of Bell’s characters, all of whom seem incapable of securing any real protection for themselves against the scary worlds he puts them in. Girlfriends disappear, families are killed, and rapist wolves prey on little girls, with no comfort anywhere for the victims. This is not a collection of sensationalistic, commercial thrillers, however. Bell paces the stories slowly and imbues them each with sensitivity. In his hands, sentiment and horror are calibrated to find balance even as form and content meander wildly from page to page."
"No matter what I write here, I cannot tell you how great this book is. In fact, I’m not even sure I know how to write a review that will do it justice. So let’s just agree on this point from the start: however great you think Matt Bell’s new collection might be after reading this review, it’s better. As I’ve read and re-read the stories in How They Were Found over the last several weeks, I’ve found myself telling everyone who will listen about it. These stories are infinitely compelling, poised exactly on the brink of explosion, the perfect balance of potency and control.”
“The characters in Matt Bell’s first full length-collection of stories, How They Were Found, often seem to be separated from the rest of the world by filmy gauze. You get the idea that a real world surrounds these folks, but they are estranged from that reality by a loose mesh that keeps them from seeing their surroundings clearly or engaging with them fully. As Bell writes of the main character in ‘His Last Great Gift,’ it is ‘as if his ears are filled with cotton or wax, as if this is something in the way of true communication, and the real world seems just as distant, just as difficult to navigate.’ Often neither the characters’ names nor their physical features are revealed. Little information is provided about their past. They are just there, searching—or, as the book’s title suggests, waiting to be found. This is not to say that the prose itself is cloudy; it allows us more than enough peeks at beauty, mystery, playfulness, and well-constructed absurdity to make this collection satisfying on many levels.”
"With their fixation on trauma, these stories usually avoid any notion of closure, and it’s hard not to read Bell’s insistence that we "resist the solving of mysteries and the revealing of truths" as a writer’s credo. But the best of these stories… reveal wonders that recall Brian Evenson, Stephen Graham Jones, and Jeannette Winterson. Bell writes that "a book can be a door if you hold it right." Open this book and cross the threshold. Bell’s world rewards those brave enough to enter."
"These stories are heavy, they are beautifully written, they are deep, they are bold, formally and thematically, yet, no matter how form busting or experimental they can be, they are always page turners in the best sense."
“How They Were Found is a collection of intense, often chilling, and excellent stories that plumb the depths of human love, loss, death, disturbance, and grief.”
"The subjects who wander through the haze of How They Were Found are all horribly damaged hopeless souls who bump against travesty after tragedy. They are ugly, gnarled, deformed and maligned. And probably, this is the reason they are so affecting: they do unspeakable things both to themselves and others, and there is but a negligible delineation between them and us. Perhaps, even, they have the courage to act on their impulses, and we can only hope to be so brave.”
"It’s not what is grotesque about Matt Bell’s characters that transfix the reader, it’s what is so human and commonplace about them. It’s impossible not to identify with even the most psychologically disfigured of these people, and that is one of the elements that creates such urgency to read more of Bell’s stories… The span of emotional range in these stories is also astonishing. ‘The Cartographer’s Girl’ is one of the most affecting stories of lost love that I have ever read."
"All of the stories here are, in their own ways, records of searching and of failure, homunculi of human enterprise. There are inventories here, lists, schemata, of course narratives—all manner of meaning-making goes on. But the complement to that meaning-making is not definition. It is memory-loss. It is obsession. It is disappearance. It is delusion."
"Bell imbues his stories with rich symbolism, and his authorial voice adds elements of calm eeriness that make his stories eminently readable."
"Even if Bell’s universes are filled with people whose ropes are too short, time is too long, memories are too elusive, instruments too outmoded, and worlds too distant, they connect to us directly through the heart. And it’s because of the heart that Bell puts into his stories that makes the intellectual exercise of them so accessible. It may not be a happy heart, but it often beats in time with our own."
"Taken together, the entirety of this collection represents an attempt to marry several generations of literary techniques, to find common ground between the ultra-modern and the classical, the historic and the post-modern. It’s a venture at which Bell succeeds, yielding something that’s also a pleasure to read."
“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.”
“Bell writes fiction that roils with a desperate want to comprehend this world, a burning desire to seek out and grasp some truth, even if its small, even if it vanishes in a breath.”
"…Bell, here, at the start of his career, displays the kind of intelligence, self-awareness, and care with regard to his prose that suggests he may become a major talent."
"Bell takes all the components of story-telling, reprocesses, then represents them in such a way that although we may not be sure what Bell is going to deliver next, we expect it to be fabulous."
"Your life may be a sad thing. But if you read this, the sadness will take on more of a sense of being shared, understood, mirrored. Sadness can be beautiful, and that makes it better."
"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 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.”
"At his best, Bell is able to evoke in the reader those same feelings that haunt his characters, of loss and loneliness, and a certain kind of damage. This characters are people who live on the edges, who exist somewhere in between reality and the absurd."
"The book as a whole speaks to how we cope with failure, how we deal with loss, how we push ourselves to meet goals, to chase dreams, to find things that were lost or never attained. There is the persistence of the attempt to restore order, or to bring about improved outcomes… Even the collection’s title speaks to the darkest moments in a life, to the way we crumble, and falter, and disintegrate—and more importantly, to what happens along the way."
"Bell’s adventurously romantic sensibility to twist genres like horror, fantasy, and mystery, craft and nurture a compulsive readability, an obsessive tone in the reader."
“How They Were Found combines attentive, poetic concern about sentence-by-sentence clarity with jarring, heart-wrenching magic realism to deliver a brave, sincere, and wild creature of words. Feathers, claws, scales, wings—this book is a multi-faceted, otherworldly animal carrying revelations that deserve your attention.
"The commonality, the theme, the thing that links these stories is the struggle with the finiteness of storytelling. How can we express our infinitely varied experiences with the same forms? We can’t, this collection screams. This author is in search of new ways."
"Matt Bell sees potential that the rest of us don’t. He refuses to limit himself to established literary conventions, instead reaching beyond the expected tropes-suicide in the family, the mental weight brought on by a mysterious murder, short-lived love-to reassess for more powerful, and wholly more interesting, possibilities… [He] has crafted a thematically cohesive and structurally invincible collection with How They Were Found.”
"[Matt Bell] is as much a scientist as he is a poet, as much a romantic as he is a detective… He is a master of mystery and a practiced crafter of speaking through that which is unsaid. How They Were Found explores the darkest core of human nature and proves the value and necessity of diving into the often unknown pool of self-reflection.”
"Matt Bell’s How They Were Found is a fabulous, fabulist’s debut collection of short stories which scours away memory and story and sets in their place tall tales and wild fables fit for our quickly disappearing world.”
"The genre-bending and originality are beautiful, but having followed Bell for this last year, I feel this work represents something more. Bell is one of many writers who create amazing literary art that is often overlooked by mainstream readers of fiction."
"Matt Bell consistently teases the reader something terrible by burying threads of hope within the pages of his bleak and otherwise soul crushing tales of loss and love and broken hearts. If his sparse storytelling doesn’t hook you, the unique, awkward, inappropriately sentimental situations his characters find themselves in most certainly will."
“‘What I learned is that even a book can be a door if you hold it right,’ says one of Bell’s narrators, and if you hold How They Were Found right, you will have a door, a door of immaculate perception, a door into elsewhere and whatever is next door to it. It’s a fine debut collection demonstrating the author’s versatility, especially with regard to form and content, realized by a measured, strapping prose style.”
“How They Were Found takes the reader on a spellbinding trip down the ‘rabbit hole’ of the author’s mind… as with Haruki Murakami, in Bell’s hands a seemingly ‘normal’ story can rapidly fall of the cliff into the realm of mythological and surreal.”
"Matt Bell’s first full-length collection establishes him as a true innovator of form by telling stories in sequenced fairy tales, inventories and indexes, spanning the wildest surrealism to the grittiest realism. Throughout all of his experimentation with form and content there persists through the collection a constant theme of obsession. You won’t find much in the way of light-hearted domestic wanting, but you will find craft-driven fiction that digs to the darkest heart human desire."
"The characters are doomed. The stories are bleak. Yet they are written so beautifully that they become something else: an exuberant example of the power of language to transport and transform."