It’s too easy to describe Matt Bell’s work as mythic. A lot about it is, but what makes it such a valuable addition to the field of stuff you can read is not just the way it draws from and modernizes mythic structures, but the way it burns through those structures to touch the awe and terror that gave rise to them. In The House Upon The Dirt Between The Lake And The Woods, his phenomenal debut novel, tells a story about barrenness and fertility that is also a story about the fight to heave off the expectations and limitations of mythic storytelling.
Bell writes with the leisurely flow of an oral epic, and his unnamed, communally defined characters (“my wife,” “our false son”) have as much lineage in ancient Greece and Scandinavia as they do in contemporary America, but instead of aspiring to the oral epic’s universal openness, In The House aspires to its own brand of claustrophobic intimacy. The narrator speaks like a bard but his story is his own, his voice unmistakably first-person.
This story is filled with quests, labyrinths, and totem animals, taking its shape partly from Orpheus (a husband seeks his wife along a seemingly never-ending downward path), and partly from Faust (this man fends off invitations to cowardice offered by a devilish miscarried boy living in his guts), but it strips these familiar elements of their cultural baggage and moral agendas. Free of what’s boring and overdetermined about them, they start to feel a lot stranger and more dangerous.
May 24th, 2013 / 11:00 am
So I hesitate to use this space to self-promote, but in this case I will make an exception, for a number of reasons, beginning with the fact that the project is online and free.
Exits Are is a series of collaborative stories that are also games. The games borrow their format and many of their conventions from text adventures (“interactive fiction”). From the about page: “A text adventure is a game that takes place in prose. The computer describes a world to you one room at a time, writing in the second person. ‘You stand in the center of a cool, dark cave,’ says the computer. ‘Exits are north, south, east, and west.’ The computer waits for you to tell it what you want to do. ‘Go east,’ you might say. Or if there is a key, you might say ‘take key.’ The computer parses your commands as best it can and tells you what happens next. . . . love text adventures, but they usually disappoint me. I wanted a way to make them more open-ended, less about puzzle-solving and more about language: its weirdness, its beauty. So I started playing a game with some of the writers I knew. Using gchat, I pretend to be a text adventure. The other writer is the player. We use the form of the text adventure to collaborate on some kind of strange, fun narrative. The only rule is that we take turns typing. We never discuss what we’re going to do in advance, so the results are improvisational and surprising/exciting/stressful/upsetting for both participants. Every time, the player does things I never could have seen coming.” READ MORE >
For Short Story Month, Matt Bell has been posting reviews of short stories, guest posts, and quotations from renowned writers on the craft of short story writing. Yesterday, Bell wrote an amazing post about Eduoard Levé’s When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue which appeared in Paris Review 196. You should read both the excerpt (genre indeterminate, sort of, you’ll see) and Matt’s commentary.
Last year saw the release of the first full length work by a much buzzed and discussed and well admired presence both online and in print, the seemingly inexhaustible Matt Bell. Between his countless writing projects, his editorship of The Collagist and role on the masthead at Dzanc Books, to relentlessly blogging and spreading the word all over the place not only about his own work, but scads of other, I don’t think there’s anybody who would argue Matt Bell isn’t an enormous lodestone-type presence for the independent press world, and always on the prowl.
Over the past few months, Matt and I exchanged a bunch of emails, some days apart, some weeks, in the midst of all this, conversing about the book, How They Were Found, Matt’s fortitude and unwavering ambition, process, sound, and many other things of the word.
BB: So, as a collection, How They Were Found represents a pretty wide arc of time and writing for you, yes? I remember “A Certain Number of Bedrooms, A Certain Number of Baths” from Caketrain several years ago being a story that was probably the first of yours I read and was like Yes, this man’s mind: there is aura here. I think I’d actually read all of the stories except one perhaps in journals since then, and was really impressed in the reading of them as a whole object how they really seemed to comprise a sense of a whole, even over such a course.. I wonder how it feels now to you to see all that time represented in an object, and if the parts as parts became different to you once they were assembled into that body? Also, how did you go about figuring out what stories from that time should go into the book and what should be left out?
MB: The time span of How They Were Found is a weirdly elongated space, because while I wrote “A Certain Number of Bedrooms, A Certain Number of Baths” in 2006–looks like I did the first draft in March of that year–I didn’t write any of the other stories in the book until 2008. The next earliest is “Hold on to Your Vacuum,” written in January of that year, and then “Ten Scenes from a Movie Called Mercy,” written a month or two later. Staring six months later, say August 2008, I wrote all of the rest of the stories that are in the book, meaning that ten of the thirteen were written between August 2009 and May 2010. So in one sense the book took me five years to write, and in another I wrote the bulk of the book in eight or nine months. The truth is probably that it was both, and that what I didn’t realize was starting with “A Certain Number of Bedrooms” just took a couple years to play out. What I remember of writing that story is that it came out almost effortlessly, in a way almost nothing does now: I had a first draft in a single day, and while it took a while to polish it–I literally just stopped, in some ways, since I tweaked a few sentences between the galleys and the final of the book–but ninety or ninety-five percent of what’s in the final version is in the first. It was something new for me, different than what I’d done before, and while I’d like to say that writing that story instantly helped me get to where I could write the rest of the stories in the book, it didn’t. I didn’t write anything else like it for a long time, didn’t even know enough to recognize how different it was from what else I was doing.
March 30th, 2011 / 9:17 am
I decided to take a look at The Collagist as a whole—or, rather, a whole created by the sum of its parts, the magazine as collage that lives so smartly up to its name. It’s true that perhaps any literary magazine could be considered a sort of collage, as it layers story and poem and visual and sometimes sound to produce a bigger picture. And yet not many literary magazines choose their pieces with the consideration a collagist uses to cut out his shapes, to determine the colors of the paints she’ll layer. The Collagist is one of my favorite literary magazines because the choosing is intentional, is meticulous, is precise. The chosen few pieces generate an intentionally tight edit. The name of the magazine, I’d guess, was not chosen on a whim, but as a sort of statement of purpose. The Collagist’s contents are widely varied in style and substance but are not random; like the best collagists, I believe editor Matt Bell uses every story, every review, every poem and excerpt and reprint and even the bios as a layer to build, to create something greater than the pieces themselves. The magazine as the work of art.
Many of my favorite artists worked with collage at some point. Georges Braque, Robert Motherwell, Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson, Marcel Duchamp—they all created work that was layered, that intensified as it grew and spread and collected and fragmented and shifted meaning from piece to piece and space to space. With wood, with paint, with newspaper, with found objects, with paper, with photos—and in the case of The Collagist, with words. Like collage artworks, each issue of The Collagist seems to swell and grow, the consequence of addition. The thread running through is not a theme per se, but a meaning you build yourself. A customizable puzzle. Deliberate yet obscure, fuzzy as close-up pixels in its larger clarity.
One of the things we’re most interested in doing with the LMC is looking at both print and online literary magazines. Much is made about whether or not great writing exists online and every other month we’ll try to answer that question as we read a new issue of an online magazine. The first online magazine we’ll be reading is The Collagist, edited by Matt Bell and published by Dzanc Books.
The Collagist is published on the 15th of each month and features a mix of fiction, poetry, novel excerpts, essays and reviews.
For a limited time only, Keyhole Press is offering both Matt Bell’s How They Were Found and Aaron Burch’s How To Predict the Weather in a package deal for $19.99 including shipping. Can’t wait to have these monsters in my hands.
Thanks, Ken, for posting about Matt Bell’s live writing sessions. The first paragraph of his story, one that never made it off the ground, has been posted at Everyday Genius, where there is also a schedule and a link to the MeetingWords site where it’s all going to happen. Tune in today at noon and again at five to see how Matt Bell writes a story, letter by letter.
Everyone, please help us welcome our last 3 new lovely contributors: Sean Lovelace (author of How Some People Like Their Eggs), Matt Bell (editor of The Collagist and author of, among many things, the forthcoming How They Were Found), and Lily Hoang (author of Changing, Parabola, and about 50 others). We’re busting up!
is out now, the Hybrid Histories issue, and as always full of magic power. Among those: Andrew Ervin, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Robert Coover, William Gass, Tim Horvath, Peter Gizzi, Francise Prose, Paul La Farge.
Matt Bell’s incredible long story His Last Great Gift is also included, and can be read online here. It’s a brain eater, as we’ve come to expect on the regular from Mr. Bell.
Its first graph:
SPEAR HAS ALREADY BEEN living in the cabin overlooking High Rock for two weeks when the Electricizers speak of the New Motor for the first time. Awakened by their voices, Spear feels his way down the hallway from the dark and still unfamiliar bedroom to his small office. He lights a lamp and sits down at the desk. Scanning the press of ghastly faces around him, he sees they’re all here tonight: Jefferson and Rush and Franklin, plus his own namesake, John Murray. They wait impatiently for him to prepare his papers, to dip a pen in ink and shake it free of the excess. When he’s ready, they begin speaking, stopping occasionally to listen to other spirits that Spear can’t quite see, that he doesn’t yet have the skills to hear. These hidden spirits are far more ancient, and Spear intuits that they guide the Electricizers in the same way that the Electricizers guide him.
There aren’t that many magazines you can count on to be provocative and powerful from end to end most every time. Conjunctions is one of those. And you can subscribe for a year for $18 in the US. You will wish you had earlier, I can pretty much promise.
November 18th, 2009 / 4:24 pm
DZANC Books‘s new online literary magazine, The Collagist, has just posted its debut issue. Edited by steam-train-among-men Matt Bell (pictured at right, the totally casual one), The Collagist features plenty of big hitters right out of the dugout, including Chris Bachelder, Kim Chinquee, and Kevin Wilson.
The work in The Collagist‘s first issue—stories, poems, essays—covers everything from router anxiety to sinkhole champions; from snowman-inspired carnality to Eastern Oregon; from thoughtful video reviews to thoughtful verbal reviews (including a review of Brian Evenson’s Fugue State by our own Ryan Call); from an essay about being in some dude’s workshop by David McLendon to a story by the dude who ran that workshop, some dude named Gordon Lish, this Lish dude, dude Lish, Gordotron, named a story, ran a shop, worked.
There is also, of course, the clean-as-a-jeweler’s-glasses presentation that we’ve come to expect from DZANC. Kudos to all involved, and do please readers give The Collagist your face, now and deeply. Press release from Matt Bell, with full contributor list, after the jump. READ MORE >
August 15th, 2009 / 1:14 am
I remember the first time I read this story in Caketrain 4, I read it in the bathtub with some awareness of who Matt Bell was but not fully yet having found. By the end of it I remember going, “Oh, shit, this guy knows what is what and who is who.” I was right to go that, because since then Matt has only continue to slay and slay and slay, and yet this story, in all that time, in comparison to so much wonderful work he’s since published, has not lost an inch of its fine luster.
Herein Matt Bell demonstrates his amazing ability to meld the unknown and the curiously black with the most identifiable of human moments, without the baggage of sentimental cheese that often crops up in making something seem ‘human.’
Scott Esposito has published the latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation, the contents of which are pretty fine this time around and include an editorial on the ‘demise’ of publishing, an intro to e-lit, a contest to give away $60 dollars worth of books, and many book reviews. Karen Vanuska’s review of Oblomov encouraged me to expand my Russian reading list.
I’m still reading the issue, but thought I should mention a personal highlight: HTMLGIANT friend Matt Bell‘s essay on Brian Evenson’s Last Days and Dark Property. Despite my having read little Evenson, the essay carried me along without giving away too much. I thought Bell neatly works through the two books, and his analysis made me wish I had more than The Wavering Knife and The Open Curtain sitting on my shelves.
March 4th, 2009 / 5:35 pm
Every year since 2004, Jason Sanford of storySouth has curated the Million Writers Award, a contest designed to promote online fiction. Here’s how it works: editors and readers nominate their favorite online stories of 1000 words or more, then a team of judges whittle these nominations into a list of Notable Stories. Sanford then selects a Top 10, and people vote for the final overall winner, who this year will receive a $100 cash prize. Here are a couple paragraphs from Sanford explaining and advocating the award:
As the old saying should go: If you can’t join them, beat them. The storySouth Million Writers Award for best online fiction of the year will help all internet-based journals and magazines gain exposure and attention … The Million Writers Award takes its name from the idea that we in the online writing community have the power to promote the great stories we are creating. If only a few hundred writers took the time to tell fifteen of their friends about a great online short story–and if these friends then passed the word about this fiction to their friends (and so on and so on)–this one story would soon have a larger readership than all of the stories in Best American Short Stories.
Last year, HTMLGIANT friend Matt Bell won the award for his story “Alex Trebeck Never Eats Fried Chicken”, published in Storyglossia. Since Storyglossia is an excellent magazine, “Alex Trebeck” is a great story, and Matt is a terrific writer, something must be going right.
To be fair, the 1000 word rule is controversial. Some editors of online magazines believe the rule marginalizes sub-1000 word stories, which many proponents of online literature believe to be the form that the internet serves best. Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions award is a different and equally excellent showcase effort that helps somewhat alleviate this issue.
The important thing: celebrating online fiction. Which the Million Writers Award has done for 5 years now, so kudos. And remember: it’s up to you. Nominate your favorite stories, or Barack Obama’s going to win this thing too.
Willows Wept Press has revealed the cover of the first book in what promises to be a solid catalog. Matt Bell‘s How The Broken Lead The Blind anchors the press and is due to be printed this month. To fully appreciate the artwork by Christy Call, you can see a wraparound cover here.
You can preorder it at the website for $10. Get on it quickly, as there are only 100 copies to be printed.
And look out for the next Willows Wept book, Scott Garson‘s Vercingetorix.