Matt Bell has become a force in American literature and this is in no small part due to his flexibility in style. His latest collection of stories A Tree or a Person or a Wall is perhaps the most comprehensive example of his stylistic diversity. The collection begins with the title story “A Tree or a Person or a Wall,” which is a story about a boy that finds himself captive in a room with a rather temperamental albino ape. The boy must figure out a way to escape the room but finds that the only way out of the room is to accept his fate as piece of terrible repeating cycle. Through the bizarre set up of the story, Bell is able to examine the complexities of identity, maturity, and desire while maintaining a murky distance from his subjects.
Many of the stories in A Tree or a Person or a Wall are relatively straightforward, which may be a relief for any readers that struggled with the prose in Bell’s novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods; however, it still maintains a playful use of language (as even the title might indicate). For example, in “The Migration,” which is a story examining race relations, violence, and the fragility of nationalist ideology, Bell collapses identity into phrases, avoiding names and pronouns, save for “they”. Bell writes:
The men who killed knew they had been locked up because they would not stop the killing, because even if they were freed they would not leave the city.
No, they said. They were not the ones would would migrate. They were the ones who would stay and kill more…The men who killed did not like the music of those others who lived among them, of those who would migrate.
Here one can see the effect of grouping criminals and victims in groups, as it shows not a solitary act of aggression, but a cultural mindset. Though the men who killed are put on trial, the media privileges their voices and their victims are silenced.
Perhaps the most welcome edition to this collection is the formerly out of print novella Cataclysm Baby, which suffered a premature end due to the unfortunate closing of Mud Luscious (a fantastic literary publisher that focused on innovative literature). Cataclysm Baby in many ways feels to me like a strange precursor to In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods not only in the subject matter, but also in style. Though not as playful as In the House…, there seems to be a hint as to the direction in which Bell was heading with his sentences. The opening paragraph, for example, has moments where the absence of certain connectors adds an energy to the line that Bell has recently been known for:
Abellard, Abraham, Absalon
This smoldered cigar, last of a box of twenty, bought to celebrate happier times, now smoked to keep away the smell of our unwashed skin, of our slipping flesh, of our baby grown in my wife’s belly, the submerged sign of a prophecy burning, stretching taut her hard bulge: all hair, just like the others, gone wrong again.
As this paragraph comes to a close, the line moves from mundane to disappointment and offers the thesis, if you will, of what will transpire—ill fated attempts and a crumbling bond.
Matt Bell is an incredibly prolific writer and a continual student of writing. He reads tirelessly, attempting to improve his own writing and find ways to become a better editor and teacher. This seems even more apparent to me in this collection. At times it reminds me of Brian Evenson, some times Gary Lutz, and some times Anne Carson; however, these influences are never so present as to call a single moment in this collection “unoriginal.” These stories are all uniquely Matt Bell’s and what he does in his diversification of style is impressive. If you’re a fan of Bell’s work and have been looking for a good book to recommend to people who might be unfamiliar with his work, this may be a good gateway book.
A Tree or a Person or a Wall
by Matt Bell
Soho Press; 400 p.