Destruction, Discomfort, and Enlightenment: On Matt Mullins’s “Three Ways of The Saw”

Three Ways of the Saw
by Matt Mullins
Atticus Books; 216 p.

Matt Mullins’s debut book of short stories, Three Ways of The Saw, left me feeling vulnerable, hurt, shocked, appalled, exposed, enlightened, moved, even inspired; just feeling a strange range of emotions, deeply, in a way I haven’t felt from a book in a while. Mullins, a creative writing professor at Ball State University, as well as a fellow in an experimental fiction center, writes with an acute sense of honesty and violence. The violence not only plays out in the plot of many of the stories, but throughout the book in the descriptions: brute, cruel, transgressive, and importantly, different, fresh, but ones that cut through bone. Mullins breaks down the book into three parts, beginning with Black Sheep Missives, which tells the stories of an Irish Catholic youth learning some awful life lessons in a brutal manner. Part two, titled Dischords, documents the range of slackers and fuck-ups throughout society, and the last part, Ghost Limbs, finds characters finally attempting to connect, to grow up, to live in a relationship with another person, but mostly failing as they confront the violence of loss.

Regardless of the story, Mullins writes with a refreshing sense of immediacy. In the first part of the book, Mullins achieves this goal through the use of a child protagonist, one who clearly sees cruelty radiating throughout life, whether in a transformative homosexual encounter with a best friend who bullies him around, or riding through a different America with his mother and father, only to first realize the monstrosity of parents fighting, the pain. In part two, on top of the violence, Mullins achieves immediacy through use of the rare form of second person narrative, reminiscent of Junot Diaz’s superb story “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)” Here we encounter different versions of the now uber-popular slacker, but in different forms, some less degenerate than others.

These “slackers” all evince the same desire to transcend their current situation. In a hilarious, but frightfully true story, one stoner, a songwriter, goes batshit paranoid that the Orkin exterminator is either a cop or an ex-con looking to narc on some hapless schmuck to lessen his own sentence. From the pot-induced paranoia about the exterminator, the protagonist fights internally to justify his lifestyle as one that deserves praise, or at least isn’t him just fucking up. So many of these stories in the middle section describe slackers, explorers, possible fuck-ups, arguing with themselves or with others about the merits of their lives and goals. Mullins writes a hilarious but searing satire and takes a serious look at a lost generation, all without any hint of snark, cynicism, or irony. At one point, in a deliciously great story, a young 30-year-old projects onto an elderly woman neighbor all the stereotypes of a lonely, fat, old woman. However, as they actually interact, he realizes she lived a full life, and he lives a life full of shit. What distinguishes this story from sap of any sorts is the hilarious rendering of the moment of necessary self realization:

I took it all in, the evidence of her love, her loyalty, her attempts at self improvement, and I had to stop myself from laughing out loud as it became abundantly clear to me that she had proven, intentionally or accidentally, that I am and always will be a totally self absorbed, judgmental asshole. I wanted to slap her in the face. Hit her repeatedly in the wounded side for reminding me of this. Instead, I shook my last two smokes out of the pack, lit them together, handed on to her, and sat down on the stoop at her feet.

Part three centers on attempts at maturity that fail, but with purpose. Some fail because of an inability to grow up, while others fail because of shocking violence that throws the reader in a non-sensationalistic manner. This section affords Mullins the opportunity to show off his range in a spectrum of characters including a snarky public school girl forced to go to a catholic school retreat, a factory worker trying to piece together the life of a prostitute and his maimed brother, and a tree-cutter confronting mortality. Mullins adapts each story to the needs of the character, while keeping a southern wisdom sensibility throughout.

Overall, every story destroys something, tears it apart, whether a preconceived notion, or a personality, or a naive dream, or a scalp. Yet, Mullins never lashes out for the sake of destruction. Though not a hope-infused book, Mullins destroys in order to imagine rebuilding. To achieve this goal, Mullins makes use of different styles, tastes of magical realism, of surrealism, but always with a sense of purpose, a move towards self-awareness, but a self-awareness that doesn’t just yield a smart fuck up, but someone who wants to eventually stop thinking obsessively about themselves.

The rarity of this shock, of this freshness from literature needs some contextualization. In today’s overexposed world, I find it hard to feel a sense of shock anymore. Think about it. Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring caused such a stir that people threw chairs in an opera house. The conductor needed to abscond away for fear of danger. I really can’t imagine anything that would cause even a dollop of a similar ruckus. In fact, most shocking events we either ignore, or blog about it into the large abyss of the Internet.

People always talk of the death of the novel, its relative unimportance. But perhaps the lack of popularity comes from a lack of a quality for appreciation of great art, or at least the desire to let a work of art affect your life, on a visceral level. We de-politicize or sterilize so much of art that we lose the power of this beautiful description from James Agee in which art allows, “to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.”

Part of this stems from our discomfort, for whatever reasons, to let books seep in to the extent that we feel called to action. Kafka spoke of only reading books that break the frozen sea inside of us. I don’t think we lack powerful enough axes, but we’ve frozen so hard that it takes violence to break through to us. Violence speaks to us because it intrudes on our increasingly non-violent existence.  Yet, we create our personality through the crucible of violence. Nathanael West knew this, and Matt Mullins knows this. We cannot fully mature until we confront the pervasive violent impulse of man, its connection to sex, and its transformative powers. Not that Mullins writes any politically explicit stories, calling for change or action, but he writes with his eyes set on our jugulars.

Out of 25 stories, some are a page long, others ten pages or more, only two fail, but fail ambitiously. A clever story of a man adopting a dog to attract a gorgeous neighbor reminds me of Etgar Keret, but turns into a simple allegory, or a metaphor with a moral. Not that a moral in a story precludes greatness, but Mullins writes with a lead hand in this story. Regardless, this represents a stellar debut for a brave, experimental writer unafraid to fail, to try everything to rip apart the veils of the world to see more clearly and feel more fully, regardless of what he finds.