How They Were Found

Stories by Matt Bell
Keyhole Press

How They Were Found, Matt Bell’s debut short story collection, is at times frustrating, at times illuminating, but almost always exhilarating in its dedication to mapping obsession and grief through genre-bending and formal experimentation. The thirteen stories in How They Were Found pick at their respective obsessions like scabs, trying to open up the hidden mysteries inside. The characters in these stories are obsessed with finding the lost and creating the new, and the stories themselves have their own formal obsessions and structural fetishes. The world in these stories is crafted with codes and keys, forgotten memories, indexes, numerical and alphabetical orderings, and while the mysteries of these obsessions are sometimes not fully satisfied, 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.

The characters and their stories in How They Were Found can be seen as “fringe,” as internally and emotionally disjointed and fetishistic in their approaches, but one never gets the sense in reading these stories that the characters are lesser specimens because of their obsessive landscapes. Bell’s greatest accomplishment with these stories is honestly exploring how, say, an amnesiac soldier in a frozen and abandoned bunker confronts his disenfranchisement, or why a woman nurtures and falls in love again with the miniaturized totem of her ex-boyfriend’s most unattractive personal qualities. The conceits in these stories demand a good deal of readerly effort and imagination, but almost always reward those readers who surrender themselves to the twisted interiors and exteriors that the stories offer.

The most successful stories in How They Were Found utilize their formal parameters and genre-bents to the purposes of digging into the crumbling, deteriorating inner lives of their characters. In “The Cartographer’s Girl,” for instance, a cartographer maps his anonymous city with his own set of symbols in the search for his disappeared loved one. In “A Certain Number of Bedrooms, A Certain Number of Baths,” a young boy tries to comprehend the death of his mother and the injury to his family in the context of the form of real estate listings. In “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed,” a man catalogs the various elements and aspects of the murders of his mother, father, and brother, to cope with his suspected oncoming fateful demise. These stories work incredibly well because they utilize their form and genre experimentations to sublimely illuminate the emotionally honest mysteries of life—love and death and coincidence and grief. Not only are the characters operating within a compromised mental landscape that they can only navigating by appropriating within structural constraints, but the stories themselves operate much the same way, through form and function simultaneously.

To be clear, How They Were Found is a schizophrenic and exhausting story collection. At times, when it is evident that it is trying too hard with its structural appropriations and genre gymnastics, the stories can distract the readers from the characters and their internal gaps and fissures. But when the characters of the stories match their conceits, How They Were Found becomes an exhilaratingly playful and horrifically demented rectification of the emotional wounds we gather through life.

--Michael Goroff

Michael Goroff lives with his cat in Akron, Ohio, where he is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction through the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program.