Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Tree or a Person or a Wall

It's rare that you can describe literary fiction as "not for the faint of heart," but Matt Bell's new collection will test your resolve. Bell's two novels, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods and Scrapper, are harrowing explorations of human failings and yearnings, but their endings have a bittersweet quality that balances the bleak intensity. There are stories here that follow that pattern, but there are also some that lead the reader not out of but deeper into the darkness. And even the ones that end hopefully will take you on an uncomfortable journey to get there. It's not just that Bell is working with disturbing thematic material. His style is also psychologically intense, its poetic rhythms drawing the reader into a kind of aesthetic fever that, like a literal fever, can be exhausting. Moving in and out of that experience seventeen times, once for each story in this collection, was daunting enough that it took me a month to read the whole thing, even though Bell is one of my favorite contemporary authors.

But readers who brave these woods will be amply rewarded. The themes and motifs that drove Bell's novels-- the anxieties of parenthood, the terrible resilience of the human psyche, cycles of abuse and the way they blur the line between predator and victim-- are present here, explored with a tighter focus than the novel form allows. The title story is reminiscent of certain aspects of Scrapper, but with the eerie surrealism of In the House. One of Bell's gifts is a capacity to balance those surreal elements with naturalistic ones in a way that uses the unreal to reinforce the raw emotions of the reality. "Doll Parts" follows a young girl's psychological journey in the aftermath of her brother's disappearance. It's ~almost~ a naturalistic story, but the few unlikely elements and the style, which reflects the fractured yet emotionally coherent logic of a grieving child, give it a mythic quality.

Bell returns frequently to children threatened, damaged, destroyed. "Dredge" is another cycle-of-trauma story that manages to be physically as well as mentally upsetting, while "Wolf Parts" revitalizes the increasingly played-out genre of the reimagined fairy tale by telling the story in dozens of different ways that revitalize the underlying motifs of family relations, victimization, sexual awakening, and hard-won survival. In "The Stations," Bell invokes again the threat of kidnapping and abuse, but in a way that shines light instead on the more common pain of unmet needs within the family. And then there's the novella "Cataclysm Baby," which the writer Karen Russell describes in a blurb as "a baby name book for the apocalypse." These twenty-six vignettes explore parental fears and hopes through an array of worlds that are as twisted and dreamlike as the people who inhabit them. The conceit may hamper the project slightly-- some of the vignettes are better than others-- but on the whole it's an extraordinary piece of work.

The collection ends as it began, with a child in peril. But this time the threat is not from outside but from within: terminal illness. You could bring "A Long Walk with Only Chalk to Mark the Way" down to a familiar metaphor-- hospital as labyrinth-- but that would do an injustice to its portrait of a father coping with unimaginable loss by telling himself a story that will take him down through the labyrinth, and then up and out again. The ending is at once tragic and beautiful in a way that perfectly encapsulates Bell's work.

Throughout the collection Bell jumps genres with gleeful abandon. "The Receiving Tower" is a kind of science fiction, a meditation on memory, identity, and perseverance that would be the most disturbing story in many collections but for Bell is only moderately troubling. "Inheritance" is on the line between science fiction and fantasy, and is one of the few stories in the collection I'm not sure works. Its concept is equal to anything else Bell has come up with, but the metaphors don't strike the heart as they do elsewhere, perhaps because the characters' psychology doesn't feel as central. I had similar issues with "The Migration," a near-future-but-also-present-day story (Scrapper also belongs to this highly hyphenated genre) that addresses some of our most pressing contemporary problems. This is a stylistic triumph, but it works mostly on the level of group rather than individual psychology, which makes its explanations feel facile even when they're basically accurate.

In addition to the various forms of science fiction and fantasy, Bell also offers a pair of very strange historical fictions. I got all the way through "His Last Great Gift" without ever imagining that its protagonist was real: he seemed too perfect an encapsulation of overlapping American ideologies of the 19th century. It was only when I got to "The Collectors" and realized it was about the Collyer brothers that I thought, "Well, they were all too real, so maybe..." "His Last Great Gift" is a well-crafted and evocative story, but "The Collectors"... well, if ever there was a writer to do justice to the Collyer brothers Matt Bell has to be it. Their story is inherently unsettling, and Bell cuts right to the heart of it. At first I dreaded reading this story, afraid that I was going to be dragged through their tragedy once more with no fresh insights to show for it, but Bell finds something new, by taking a hard look not at the brothers, but at us.

A Tree or a Person or a Wall is a collection of remarkable stylistic and thematic unity. Bell's language is sometimes more intense and sometimes less so, but its rhythms are constant, as are the topics with which he is most deeply concerned. For some readers this will be limiting, will make the book feel claustrophobic. To my mind, however, the great range of settings and genres, the slide up and down the realism-surrealism scale, produces something that is better called resonant than repetitive. It echoes itself to create a larger music. Make no mistake: by the standards of literary fiction as commodity, the bestselling novels that bloodlessly reproduce upper middle class dysfunction, Matt Bell is a difficult writer. He looks at the traumas of the family through a different lens, he tugs at threads some would prefer to leave hanging. But what he does with those threads once they're pulled loose is extraordinary. This is one of the best books of the year, and well worth any effort it demands of you as a reader.

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