Reviews, Vol. 4.4, Dec. 2010
Keyhole Press, 2010
Perfect bound, 250 pp., $13.95
Review by Cynthia Reeser
“It has been dark as long as I can remember, long enough that the sun grows increasingly theoretical, abstract.” —from “The Receiving Tower,” How They Were Found
Where there is darkness—cultural, hypothetical, or literal—it is human nature to seek a source of light, something to make sense of the abstract or the concealed, something to provide definition. In this sense, Matt Bell’s short story collection, How They Were Found, is a postmodern attempt to redirect and define the forgetfulness of a society toward its history. “The Receiving Tower” is the tale of a group of people situated at a frozen end of the earth, fully disengaged from society, losing their memories of the past a little more every day. As a collective, they are a society in miniature struggling to find lost meaning and memory. It is their attempt to hold on to both a sense of self and of meaning within a culture that makes their ill-fated situation so tragic.
On the other hand, the collection as a whole speaks to discovery, to new developments and inventions, to maps, charts, and indices as methods of interpreting what has been lost. In “His Last Great Gift,” a man who believes he is being visited by God’s invisible messengers creates a great machine under their supposed direction, which is intended to lend new interpretation to life itself and to spirituality. What he loses in his misguided attempts toward a higher purpose does not absolve his cause in the end. In “The Cartographer’s Girl,” a man seeks his missing partner by creating maps of all the places she has been, of all the places that held any significance to their lives. The story is interspersed with keys and legends, with interpretive symbols that collectively give more than a passing nod to semiotics. A line from the story, “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed,” speaks to the work as a whole: “Index as excavation, as unearthing, as exhumation.”
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. The persistence of hope is evidenced in sentences like “Eventually, there is an end to discord, a return to either harmony or silence” (“Ten Scenes from a Movie Called Mercy”) but ultimately, the outcome is failure. How They Were Found is not about that failure, but rather, about the attempt to restore order and the myriad ways lives break down, society crumbles, and how the mind and the heart can be destroyed. 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.