Matt Bell, How the Broken Lead the Blind, Willows Wept Press
In high school I read a Zen Koan about finding a horse. This rich guy sees a black stallion or something and hires an old master to retrieve it. He returns with a spotted mare. The rich guy is like, “Wait, what?” and the master says, “Oh no, it’s cool, this is a horse.”
It’s like that with the very short stories in Matt Bell’s collection, How the Broken Lead the Blind. They aren’t just great because of what they are about on the surface, but because of the tension between what’s on the surface and what accumulates behind the words. Bell’s work manifests Susan Sontag’s notion from “On Style,” that “the subject is on the outside; the style is on the inside.”
Accordingly, many of these microfictions work as conventional, plausible narratives, like “Once She’d Been a Brunette.” This one begins with a man shaving his head to support his cancerous lover and ends a year later when, giving his stubbly scalp a rub, she thinks about the springtime she’ll die before seeing. Bell encapsulates that whole drama in the first sentence: “They shave their hair together, before she even starts to lose hers.”
Meanwhile, other stories invert the question of narrative belief admirably. They would probably work as allegories if they had some distinct second meaning, but the second meaning isn’t distinct at all – at least not in what we have come to think of as a meaningful meaning for meaning. Like, take “Player Piano.”
In the first few sentences of this piece, a man who seems like he’s been lifted (masterfully) from a John O’Hara story boasts about his full head of hair. Life is great for him. “My wife and I were blessed all right,” he says, until the piano repairman unfolds the secret to their happiness from a scroll wedged into their upright. Supposedly this will put an end to their luck. But instead of bearing this out, the story ends with their terror at the possibility of unhappiness.
In “The Present,” a wife gifts her hand, severed, to her husband. This one is really absurd. The man is delighted with the gift, especially the surprise of it, but when his wife comes home from the hospital, she’s displeased to find that he’s using it for an ashtray.
Then another straight story, “The Trophy Wife,” begins with a gift too, this one from a man to his married lover. It’s a bowling trophy, representing her alibi and also their infidelity. And bowling represents their dilemma: “There are four hundred and fifty-nine combinations of possible splits. She said, It’s hard to pick up after a split.”
Regardless of the logistical framework of any story, my first judgment of each is simply that it is interesting. This is a rare feat in a genre which prioritizes mood and ingenuity over coherence and occurrence. It’s canny of Bell to tip off his authorial focus early, in “Ten Scenes from a Movie Called Mercy.” He writes, “Resist denouement, resist the solving of mysteries and the revealing of truths, because it is in these things that you may be judged.”
The point is almost cynical – don’t try to do much, because you might fail – but Bell is exceptionally good at writing in such a way that nothing ever seems to be lacking. This is what I’m most fond of in Bell’s writing, what continues to strike me each time I read it: in abstraction, it is never alienating. Complete from every first sentence, How the Broken Lead the Blind is always unresolved, always resolving.