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A Tree or a Person or a Wall: Stories

by Matt Bell

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312698,778 (4.25)None
A Tree or a Person or a Wall gives us Matt Bell at his most inventive and uncanny: parents and children, murderers and monsters, wild renditions of the past, and acute takes on the present, all of which build to a virtuoso reimagining of our world. A 19th-century minister builds an elaborate motor that will bring about the Second Coming. A man with rough hands locks a boy in a room with an albino ape. An apocalyptic army falls under a veil of forgetfulness. The story of Red Riding Hood is run through a potentially endless series of iterations. A father invents an elaborate, consuming game for his hospitalized son. Indexes, maps, a checkered shirt buried beneath a blanket of snow: they are scattered through these pages as clues to mysteries that may never be solved, lingering evidence of the violence and unknowability of the world. A Tree or a Person or a Wall brings together Bell's previously published shorter fiction-the story collection How They Were Found and the acclaimed novella Cataclysm Baby-along with seven dark and disturbing new stories, to create a collection of singular power.… (more)
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Success and Its Trappings

By Kurt Baumeister (for Electric Literature 10/10/16)

Weighing in at a hefty four hundred pages, Matt Bell’s latest story collection, A Tree or a Person or a Wall (Soho), comes in the wake of his critically-acclaimed novels (also from Soho), In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (2013) and Scrapper (2015). An early-career retrospective of sorts, much of the material contained in A Tree or a Person or a Wall originated in Bell’s Indie-published volumes, 2010’s How They Were Found and 2012’s Cataclysm Baby. There’s new work here, seven stories worth of it — the title piece, “Doll Parts,” “The Migration,” “The Stations,” “Inheritance,” “For You We Are Holding,” and “A Long Walk with Only Chalk to Mark the Way” — but, to a great extent, this volume revisits Bell’s earliest material. In the process, A Tree or a Person or a Wall can’t help but provoke questions about artistic development and the interplay between commerce and creativity. The basic issue: Does Bell’s early work stand comparison to what he’s producing now; or, does this collection represent an attempt to leverage old material in light of recent success?

We deal with related concerns all the time in the literary world, and by “we” I don’t just mean book critics. Readers, writers, and critics, no one in America is immune to the impact of literature’s commercialization, a necessary consequence if writers are to make any sort of living from their work. Still, the profit motive can, and often does, go too far. Whether we’re talking about the Lee family’s cash grab, Go Set a Watchman (a supposed sequel that wound up being an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird), or any number of other examples (John Kennedy Toole comes to mind with his posthumous masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces followed some years later by his only other book, a truly terrible novella he’d written as a teenager, The Neon Bible), attempts to fleece consumers are common in America, certainly not just in literature.

But I think most writers with literary ambitions would like to believe they’re offering the best work they can, that they’re providing fair artistic value to their readers, not simply trying to cash in. (And here, in fairness to the authors mentioned above, they didn’t have much say in the suspect publications, owing to advanced age for Lee, suicide for Toole). Beyond that, successful writers like Bell must wonder whether their early work was the equal of whatever garnered them their “break,” if all they were missing was a little timing or luck to have had that break years before.
Even if we set aside thoughts of success and its trappings — considerations such as units sold, prize nominations, and general notoriety — the author’s hope has to be that he really was good enough once upon a time, even as he toiled in what might have been relative (or even true) obscurity. For that author, there’s got to be some vindication in seeing work he believed in finally reach a broader audience. If we’re honest with ourselves as writers, readers, and critics, though, the question we come back to, the only question that really matters, is whether this newfound attention is justified, whether it is deserved. When it comes to A Tree or a Person or a Wall, the only answer I can give is a resounding, “Yes.”

A talented, at times even daring, stylist Bell is a literary experimentalist who never lets his experiments overtake his fiction’s need for dramatic effect, that necessary quality of making the reader want to read. This is something many literary writers forget or even disdain: the fact that it’s their responsibility to attract readers and keep them interested, not the other way around. And it’s a lesson Bell seems to have learned from an early age. Fearless in terms of the subject matter he’s willing to write about and perhaps ever more so in the unexpected, sometimes extremely dark angles he takes in fleshing out his stories, Bell has the goods, no question.
Whether we’re considering the earlier work like “The Cartographer,” “The Collectors,” and the epic cli-fi novella “Cataclysm Baby” (vast in scope; beautiful and haunting, disturbing and thought provoking in execution) or the more recent standouts like “The Stations,” “The Migration,” and the collection’s final piece, the heartbreaking ode to the victims death leaves among the living, “A Long Walk with Only Chalk to Mark the Way,” overall, A Tree or a Person or a Wall more than lives up to the hype generated by Bell’s successful novels.

More than a basic chronology designed to consume space at the expense of quality, A Tree or a Person or a Wall is, as a whole, a substantial piece of art. Bell has taken the time to really piece this material together, to develop an overall seven-part structure that feels at once like an early-career retrospective and a unified piece of work. These are not linked stories per se (or, not overtly so), but in their overwhelming attention to humanity’s self-destructive love affairs with itself and its world and a human experience that is a constant quest for understanding, a quest that seems to succeed and fail simultaneously, again and again, this is a text that asks to be reread.

A Tree or a Person or a Wall is one of the best books I’ve read this year. From prose that is simultaneously elegant and muscular to its hybrid of mystery, wisdom, and earned emotion, from its notes of slipstream and fabulism to those of outright fable, this volume does indeed answer the literary question I posed earlier. This is a justified, even necessary collection, one we should be grateful to Soho for bringing out. Only in his mid-thirties, Matt Bell is a great short story writer, and has been now for many years. The lingering question is just how good Bell can become, whether we will look back on this volume and see it as a prelude to greater things still. Only time will tell.

https://electricliterature.com/success-and-its-trappings-eb3467fcd049#.h53lls125
( )
  kurtbaumeister | Oct 25, 2017 |
Matt Bell’s A Tree or a Person or a Wall might be categorized as Existentialist Horror. If human beings are the architects of our own fate, then Bell’s stories suggest we’ve pretty much made a hash of it.

As a warning to fans of Stephen King or Edgar Allen Poe or even Shirley Jackson, you won’t find anything that straightforward within these pages. These are literary allegories chock full of evocative and disturbing imagery with plots that are often vague or surrealistic. Most seem to deal with the repercussions of human folly, like bigotry (“The Migration”), over-reliance on technology and conformity (“For You We Are Holding”) or the pursuit of eternal youth (“The Inheritance”). The title piece, “A Tree or a Person or a Wall,” is about a young boy who spends his life imprisoned in a cell with an albino ape until such time as he will become the jailer and imprison another small boy, perhaps illustrating the vicious cycle of complacency that perpetuates evil.

The longest story “Cataclysm Baby,” is a literal A-to-Z of freakish children born into an ever more desecrated world; each baby represents some aspect of the moral degradation of mankind and the ways in which we’ve exploited [and will ultimately destroy] our world. This seems to be a popular theme with Bell as there are a number of straight-out dystopian and/or apocalyptic tales. In “The Receiving Tower” a small platoon of elderly men, seemingly the last on Earth, have spent countless years in some sort of military installation awaiting word from the outside world that their commission has finally been served and they will be allowed to leave. In “The Collectors,” we get a glimpse into the final days of the real-life Collyer brothers, New York socialites turned hoarders who died as a result of being trapped amongst the debris and filth they’d accumulated in their Fifth Avenue mansion. Sort of a microcosm of mankind’s relationship to the planet and, taken in the context of the rest of the collection, certainly some sort of cautionary tale.

Bell has a great command of mood and his language is very haunting. The stories have a way of sticking with you and making you think. This is a brilliant collection. I can recommend it not only to high-minded horror fans, but anyone who’s interested in well-written, modern morality fables. ( )
  blakefraina | Aug 29, 2016 |
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A Tree or a Person or a Wall gives us Matt Bell at his most inventive and uncanny: parents and children, murderers and monsters, wild renditions of the past, and acute takes on the present, all of which build to a virtuoso reimagining of our world. A 19th-century minister builds an elaborate motor that will bring about the Second Coming. A man with rough hands locks a boy in a room with an albino ape. An apocalyptic army falls under a veil of forgetfulness. The story of Red Riding Hood is run through a potentially endless series of iterations. A father invents an elaborate, consuming game for his hospitalized son. Indexes, maps, a checkered shirt buried beneath a blanket of snow: they are scattered through these pages as clues to mysteries that may never be solved, lingering evidence of the violence and unknowability of the world. A Tree or a Person or a Wall brings together Bell's previously published shorter fiction-the story collection How They Were Found and the acclaimed novella Cataclysm Baby-along with seven dark and disturbing new stories, to create a collection of singular power.

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