January 9th, 2011 / 6:19 pm

Matt Bell’s Catalog of Structures

I admire the way the stories in Matt Bell’s How They Were Found tackle so many forms. Here is a list of those forms, superficially described:

“The Cartographer’s Girl” — a cartographer’s map key as prompt for story fragments

“The Receiving Tower” — nineteen-part structure, which ascends like the tower at the story’s center

“His Last Great Gift” — two-hundred “revealments,” some of which are given directly

“Her Ennead” — nine reflections on the repetition “her baby”

“Hold on to Your Vacuum” –nine chronologically linear “turns” (the one variation is a “not turn”)

“Dredge” — twenty-five chronologically linear crots in close third person on a single character (this is the most “conventional” story in the book, and also perhaps the most emotionally impactful)

“Ten Scenes from a Movie Called Mercy” — ten scenes from a movie called Mercy

“Wolf Parts” — A collage of story, competing story, teller’s take on story, facts & objects (think Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried), and not-instruction where the moral instruction might otherwise go. Built on the chassis of a common fairy tale, which it resists strongly.

“Mantodea” — Three-part structure (set-up/action/denouement) in a muted first-person dramatic monologue

“The Leftover” — Two-part structure, with three months in the white space between parts one and two. Implied free indirect discourse (the way the present tense is deployed is what implies it, I think), which pushes the protagonist to a distance greater than what we get in “Dredge” — even though we have access to the inside of the character, the effect of the story is one of seeing the character from the outside

“A Certain Number of Bedrooms, A Certain Number of Baths” — story proceeds in a simulacrum of catalog copy

“The Collectors” — complicated intersecting matrix of numbered parts and lettered parts, number-lettered like so — 1A, 3A, 2A, 4A, 3B, 1B, 3C, etc. — which implies at least three ways to read the story (in the order it’s arranged in the book, numerically, or alphabetically — these are the three ways I’ve tried it, anyway), and probably more — quite a feat, to make something more formally complicated than Cortazar’s Hopscotch in less than five percent the space

“An Index of How Our Family Was Killed” — an alphabetic index (this is, strangely, the second-most emotionally impactful piece in the book, despite a surface that would imply something intellectual and cold)


  1. Roxane

      I agree about An Index. Despite the index, which as you note, does lend itself more to something intellectual, detached, it was the most emotionally interesting story for me followed closely by Dredge which was just so haunting and wonderful. There’s a lot of interesting form work in this book but sometimes I wondered, as I read the stories, then re-read them, if form played too much of a role in the collection. Im not sure, but that certainly did not detract from my enjoyment.

  2. Joeahearn

      Thanks for alerting me to this book. I am going to order a copy.

      Joe Ahearn

  3. MG

      I had the same reaction re form’s almost over-involvement in the heart of some of these stories. “An Index,” actually, was my favorite story because it felt like the most cohesive between form and character. Same goes for “The Cartographer’s Girl.” However, because the forms used in the collection are so varied, it became exhilarating to see how form and genre would be twisted in each subsequent story as the collection progressed. It’s a really fascinating collection, very fun and dark.

  4. Kyle Minor

      I think some of the stories offer a pleasure that is more strongly an intellectual pleasure, and others offer a pleasure that is more strongly an emotional pleasure, and many deliver both at once. Another writer I like who does this is David Foster Wallace. I can’t complain about it — I’m happy to get either or both. So often you get neither.

  5. Anonymous


  6. Hans

      Please more posts like this one.

  7. Stacey1983

      I wish he would do more stories like Dredge.

  8. Kyle Minor

      Part of the pleasure of these stories is in how so many of them wear their structure as an exoskeleton and draw attention to the exoskeleton as a metaphor or rhetorical device or meaning-making system or what-have-you. This is also the reason it’s a relatively easy job to superficially describe the structures. I suspect that repeated closer reads might reveal some deeper structures. I also know, from experience, that sometimes very intricate, interesting, and impactful structures can be found in pieces of writing that at first blush don’t seem to give up their structures. Those books are more difficult to talk about in ways that make them sound as interesting as I think this book would sound if I described it to you.

      Sometimes formally experimental fiction (a category to which some of these stories belong) is a designation associated with difficulty, but I find it more often to come with a candy coating — it’s sweet, it goes down easy, it makes you feel good to enjoy it. I had that kind of experience every time I read this book, and I’ve had that experience with a lot of formally experimental books I’ve read recently, including Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks, Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps, Amelia Gray’s Museum of the Weird, and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets.

      I don’t think that go-down-smooth-ness is either a virtue or a deficit. It’s not a value judgment, I mean. It’s a description. I’ve also been posting this week about Thomas Bernhard, a formally experimental writer whose surface is dense and sometimes difficult, and whose structures take longer to unpack. I’m happy to be able to enjoy both kinds of books, and seventy-eight other varieties of books as well.

  9. Anonymous

      “…but I find it more often to come with a candy coating — it’s sweet, it goes down easy, it makes you feel good to enjoy it.”

      I like this. I’ve always found that the idea of experimentation, or the attempt of the idea at least, is admirable (at least), but (one kind of) sugar-coated-fun happens when a thing reads something like how my mind ambles, or could think of ambling, and then what I think of as the ‘difficulty’ is unpacking on the author’s mind’s amble’s terms. I guess I’m just restating what you just wrote?

      Anyway, this book is for murderers. Nice post.

  10. Anonymous


  11. Tf


  12. Anonymous


  13. Winter News | Kyle Minor

      […] When You Say “Brooklyn”? A Conversation on Literary Translation with Elizabeth Harris Matt Bell’s Catalog of Structures Bernhard’s Shadow Thoughts About A Televised Performance of John Cage’s […]

  14. Anonymous