Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Finding Meaning in How They Were Found

The first time I read a collection of David Foster Wallace’s short stories, the depth of his fiction reminded me of the depth in great essays. The man had a point to everything he wrote; his fiction doesn’t just tell a story (in the same way his nonfiction doesn’t just, say, report on a lobster festival). He was always needling at something more important, something worth examining, something worth trying to understand even if understanding is/was impossible.

While reading How They Were Found, Matt Bell’s excellent new collection of stories from Keyhole Press, I saw Bell engaging in a similar process of digging. Bell – while a very different writer than Wallace – doesn’t keep to the surface. The stories in How They Were Found dig into essential questions. How do we organize our life after tragedy? How do we comprehend that which has no explanation? How do we uncover what matters amidst so much that seems so meaningless?

Confession: a lot of modern fiction bores me. Truly. Many of the short stories I encounter are well-written and nicely controlled, but ultimately unimportant because of their smallness in consequence or because they travel such well-trodden terrain. Bell doesn’t write that kind of fiction. 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 it's small, even if it vanishes in a breath.

From the very first story that follows a man using a system of cartography to seek out a lost love to “The Receiving Tower” where the main character is losing his memory (in a possibly post-apocalyptic world, nonetheless) to the structural experimentation of “Wolf Parts,” “The Collectors” and particularly “An Index Of How Our Family Was Killed,” Bell has assembled a collection filled with characters yearning for understanding and propelled by a belief that such understanding is actually possible. It’s that yearning – that hope – that pushes us to care and makes us want to read more, even when the stories turn disturbing (helpful tip: read “Dredge” on an empty stomach).

Writers enamored with inventive structures and rich language sometimes produce impenetrable work that is more literary artifact than meaningful story. Fortunately, despite the complexities in many of Bell’s stories in this collection, they are still stories. Which is to say: they are good reads. Nothing feels overly forced; nothing feels done just for the sake of showing off writerly abilities or messing around with language for the sake of messing around with language. The structural choices within How They Were Found are the product of specific characters and their specific need for understanding. Bell allows his characters to present information in whatever ways are most meaningful to them. Sometimes, that’s linear with traditional flashbacks, but sometimes that’s in the form of an alphabetized list. The result is a collection of stories that feels born from the characters and not from the mind of some overly playful writer.

The collection, of course, is not perfect. The best stories (“Collectors” and “An Index Of How Our Family Was Killed” being my personal favorites), so outshine some of the smaller stories in this collection that, when going back to write this review, I came across a couple of stories I’d completely forgotten. This is not an uncommon problem in story collections. But, with Bell, I get the sense that it’s a consequence of him being a writer just beginning to come into his own. The collection is certainly well-assembled and well-paced, but there are softer spots, stories that lack the openness of some of the collection’s best stories, as if Bell is still working to find a balance between his desire to cross literary boundaries and his desire to make his stories meaningful. The stories that make this collection brilliant are the ones that Bell allows the reader to move through and explore. The stories that shine less so are the ones where I felt Bell leading me by the hand (i.e.: “Hold Onto Your Vacuum” loses some of its whacked-out strangeness once the sadistic Teacher explains the purpose of his violence. I would have liked if the meaning of the story had been much less tidy.).

Nevertheless, How They Were Found is an excellent collection and is worth reading by anyone who enjoys good stories. Even more so, it’s a collection worth reading for those who want their fiction to contain deeper meanings. Fiction, at its best, is a submersion into the questions of its age. And in a world of random violence, cultural wars and proliferating “truths,” I’m not sure there are too many questions more important than: how do we find meaning in all of this? Matt Bell explores that very issue. And it’s what makes his collection a true standout.