Success and Its Trappings, a review of Matt Bell’s latest

A comprehensive look and establishment of Matt Bell’s dynamic, literary range

By Kurt Baumeister (for Electric Literature, October 10, 2016)

Weighing in at a hefty four hundred pages, Matt Bell’s latest story collection, A Tree or a Person or a Wall (Soho), comes in the wake of his critically-acclaimed novels (also from Soho), In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (2013) and Scrapper (2015). An early-career retrospective of sorts, much of the material contained in A Tree or a Person or a Wall originated in Bell’s Indie-published volumes, 2010’s How They Were Found and 2012’s Cataclysm Baby. There’s new work here, seven stories worth of it — the title piece, “Doll Parts,” “The Migration,” “The Stations,” “Inheritance,” “For You We Are Holding,” and “A Long Walk with Only Chalk to Mark the Way” — but, to a great extent, this volume revisits Bell’s earliest material. In the process, A Tree or a Person or a Wall can’t help but provoke questions about artistic development and the interplay between commerce and creativity. The basic issue: Does Bell’s early work stand comparison to what he’s producing now; or, does this collection represent an attempt to leverage old material in light of recent success?

“Bell is a literary experimentalist who never lets his experiments overtake his fiction’s need for dramatic effect.”

We deal with related concerns all the time in the literary world, and by “we” I don’t just mean book critics. Readers, writers, and critics, no one in America is immune to the impact of literature’s commercialization, a necessary consequence if writers are to make any sort of living from their work. Still, the profit motive can, and often does, go too far. Whether we’re talking about the Lee family’s cash grab, Go Set a Watchman (a supposed sequel that wound up being an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird), or any number of other examples (John Kennedy Toole comes to mind with his posthumous masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces followed some years later by his only other book, a truly terrible novella he’d written as a teenager, The Neon Bible), attempts to fleece consumers are common in America, certainly not just in literature.

But I think most writers with literary ambitions would like to believe they’re offering the best work they can, that they’re providing fair artistic value to their readers, not simply trying to cash in. (And here, in fairness to the authors mentioned above, they didn’t have much say in the suspect publications, owing to advanced age for Lee, suicide for Toole). Beyond that, successful writers like Bell must wonder whether their early work was the equal of whatever garnered them their “break,” if all they were missing was a little timing or luck to have had that break years before.

Even if we set aside thoughts of success and its trappings — considerations such as units sold, prize nominations, and general notoriety — the author’s hope has to be that he really was good enough once upon a time, even as he toiled in what might have been relative (or even true) obscurity. For that author, there’s got to be some vindication in seeing work he believed in finally reach a broader audience. If we’re honest with ourselves as writers, readers, and critics, though, the question we come back to, the only question that really matters, is whether this newfound attention is justified, whether it is deserved. When it comes to A Tree or a Person or a Wall, the only answer I can give is a resounding, “Yes.”

A talented, at times even daring, stylist Bell is a literary experimentalist who never lets his experiments overtake his fiction’s need for dramatic effect, that necessary quality of making the reader want to read. This is something many literary writers forget or even disdain: the fact that it’s their responsibility to attract readers and keep them interested, not the other way around. And it’s a lesson Bell seems to have learned from an early age. Fearless in terms of the subject matter he’s willing to write about and perhaps ever more so in the unexpected, sometimes extremely dark angles he takes in fleshing out his stories, Bell has the goods, no question.

Whether we’re considering the earlier work like “The Cartographer,” “The Collectors,” and the epic cli-fi novella “Cataclysm Baby” (vast in scope; beautiful and haunting, disturbing and thought provoking in execution) or the more recent standouts like “The Stations,” “The Migration,” and the collection’s final piece, the heartbreaking ode to the victims death leaves among the living, “A Long Walk with Only Chalk to Mark the Way,” overall, A Tree or a Person or a Wall more than lives up to the hype generated by Bell’s successful novels.

“A Tree or a Person or a Wall is, as a whole, a substantial piece of art.”

More than a basic chronology designed to consume space at the expense of quality, A Tree or a Person or a Wall is, as a whole, a substantial piece of art. Bell has taken the time to really piece this material together, to develop an overall seven-part structure that feels at once like an early-career retrospective and a unified piece of work. These are not linked stories per se (or, not overtly so), but in their overwhelming attention to humanity’s self-destructive love affairs with itself and its world and a human experience that is a constant quest for understanding, a quest that seems to succeed and fail simultaneously, again and again, this is a text that asks to be reread.

A Tree or a Person or a Wall is one of the best books I’ve read this year. From prose that is simultaneously elegant and muscular to its hybrid of mystery, wisdom, and earned emotion, from its notes of slipstream and fabulism to those of outright fable, this volume does indeed answer the literary question I posed earlier. This is a justified, even necessary collection, one we should be grateful to Soho for bringing out. Only in his mid-thirties, Matt Bell is a great short story writer, and has been now for many years. The lingering question is just how good Bell can become, whether we will look back on this volume and see it as a prelude to greater things still. Only time will tell.

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