RE/COLLECTOR: Kim Gek Lin Short on Matt Bell’s The Collectors


The Collectors Final Cover

The Collectors, Matt Bell, Caketrain

This house is a body, and you move within it. Rooms like cells, floors like organs, and you two—like what exactly? Pulses of electricity, nervous messages, the tiny sparks that one day might bring this place to life?

Listen—

Somewhere Homer is crying again, isn’t he?

You probably know the story of the Collyer brothers, the compulsive hoarders Homer and Langley who not only never threw anything away, but obsessively sought more stuff to hoard. How they were found dead in the Harlem brownstone where they lived reclusively among literally tons of belongings for several decades. Tell me that doesn’t spark your imagination. Tell me it doesn’t make you want to know why. If not why, then at least more. Tell me you will read Matt Bell’s The Collectors if these or they are on your mind.

But what is The Collectors? It’s not exactly fiction and it isn’t biography and some of it’s so sublime I claim it as poetry. It reminds me of something Graham Greene wrote in his A Sort of Life about referential texts:

As opposed to all forms of fiction, biography and autobiography are referential texts: exactly like scientific or historical discourse, they claim to provide information about a “reality” exterior to the text, and so to submit to a test of verification. Their aim is not simple verisimilitude, but resemblance to the truth. Not the effect of the real, but the image of the real.

Here is where The Collectors exceeds “simple verisimilitude” but departs from biography: it provides “the effect of the real, but [not] the image of the real.” Although, sometimes, it provides both:

The thin biography tells me nothing, doesn’t help me penetrate past the birth and death dates, the one extant photograph, the mere facts of your father leaving you. . .The only way I feel close to you is when I read the list of objects you left behind, because I know that in your needy acquisitions, there is something of me.

Bell gives us confessional glimpses of an authorial presence, in this case actually (really) reading the biography of the brothers and “the list of objects” left behind, identifying with their “needy acquisitions” and frustrated by the immensity of what’s left out. And what’s left out, necessarily a fiction, is the obsession of The Collectors. This play at hybridity is particularly interesting in contemporary fiction, where realist traditions and the empirical structure of the bildungsroman, for example, are appropriated and destroyed, rather than modeled, as theories of identity and self become increasingly fragmented, subjective, and even absurd. And while forms of biography, as historical documents, are typically considered less elusive, less mysterious, and more real than fiction, the evolution of the postmodern “self” necessitates mutations of both.

For instance, part of what gives The Collectors its fictional skin is the very nature of the relationship between the authorial presence (the writer/narrator of the text) and the subjects of the story: they are to some degree a unified fictional identity. This “unification” permeates not only the matter of the text, but its mock-scientific structure. Chapter titles such as “4B Where I Am in Relation to Where You Are” suggest a cataloguing or presentation of text and character as “exhibit.” Bell curates these specimens out of linear order and incomplete, teasing at what is curtained-off from the “gallery.” All of this illustrates failure in the experiment, where even the unified identity fails to be a whole self. This identity, then, is “re/collection” or memory, an involuntary bodily process of our puny subjectivity and reality.

The weighty and material insistence of memory, and its ever imminent decay, are parallels Bell taxidermically stuffs in his pairing/trapping of spirit and body, brother and brother, author and obsession. We fixate in The Collectors on things so holy they become Body, or bodies so holey they are stuffed with things, or a house so stuffed it becomes timeless, everything not alive but lifelike:

No brother without a piano, without a bathrobe,
without a chair, a pipe, a mouthful of oranges and black beard.
No self without these ghosts.
No ghosts, without—
No. No ghosts, or rather:
No ghosts, no ghosts except in things.

This possibility of reality in fiction is a (crucial) part of the genre from the beginning. Throughout The Collectors, a dialogue between the fictional and biographical is spoken, interjected, presented in the very texture of what the characters seek/avoid: definition. There is a sense in this text that writing-the-real, that defining-the-real, is no longer an endeavor towards reality. That Greene’s “image of the real” can never truly succeed. That classifications, collections, issues of public and private in terms of perspective/exhibition, and issues of what is inherited/kept/collected (or isn’t) in terms of identity and definition, always serve to undermine and flaw reality, fracturing any whole image of what is, in part, presented, because “there is so much to see here, but only in fragments, in peripheries.” That is, there is a tenor of failure in The Collectors, a vibration throughout of deficiency:

Homer didn’t understand—of course he didn’t—but that didn’t stop you, because you knew that what you were doing could work, could solve the failure of your family, if only you gathered enough.

Of course, in all the stuff that is kept, the defect persists, because “despite my whispered assurances you will know that I am not real enough to save you or him, and then it will be over.”

We are told: “I am conducting an investigation. I am holding a wake. I am doing some or all or none of these things.” What is achieved then is more than just fiction, more than just referential, and more than just real. It is simultaneously a comment on each of these ideas, which is even more effective at communicating a sense of these characters. The authorial “I” who is making this, a testament, to “you Langley and to him, Homer” makes these characters most fragile, most human, most identifiable to the reader in a shared search for answers, a persistent questioning. The characters in The Collectors may not be Real, but they’re real enough. Maybe even more than real in their very human “defect,” their indefinable and changing subjectivity, and their inability to even define themselves, no matter how much stuff belonged to them, or them to it.

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Kim Gek Lin Short’s lyric novella The Bugging Watch and Other Exhibits is forthcoming from Tarpaulin Sky Press.

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