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?


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.


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

Bell Hooks and Jabs and Feints and Emerges Victorious, Unbruised, Hairy: Adam Robinson on Matt Bell’s How the Broken Lead the Blind

how the broken lead the blind

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.