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A Tree or a Person or a Wall: Stories


A Tree or a Person or a Wall: Stories

Be warned. A TREE OR A PERSON OR A WALL is a collection of disturbance on the printed page. This is pitch dark fiction, told in pitch-perfect prose, but it is frightening, disturbing and very, very real. Author Matt Bell gained critical acclaim last year with SCRAPPER, a dystopian work that nonetheless defied easy classification. The stories contained in this latest book collect his previously published shorter work --- the novella CATACLYSM BABY and the stories from the out-of-print collection HOW THEY WERE FOUND --- to bring Bell to the wider audience, which he has so profoundly earned and deserves.

A TREE OR A PERSON OR A WALL opens with the title story, and sets the mood for what is to come with the highly disturbing tale of a young boy who is kidnapped by a man who imprisons him in a room with an albino ape. The story is surreal and allegorical, but also frightening, and for good reason. It’s just not the reason the reader expects. It is a good story to start this collection. Reading Bell is like walking halfway into a room and discovering that you’re standing on the ceiling instead of the floor, and the ceiling is crawling with spiders. Who love you. It’s hair-raising fantasy that is more real than the real world.

"Bell is so good that it’s going to be hard to read anything else. Even when he is surreal, you can feel him tearing down the barriers that we build to shield ourselves from the horror of what is real."

If you are in the mood to be even more unsettled, try “Wolf Parts.” To say that it rewrites the story of Little Red Riding Hood is an oversimplification. “Wolf Parts” takes the Brothers Grimm tale and keeps pulling it apart and reconstructing it, with the wolf, Red and the grandmother taking various turns as victim, aggressor and lover. The source material is disturbing enough in its original form; Bell brilliantly ratchets the horror and imagination of it up a notch or five. You will never forget certain passages of it, as much as you might want to.

While you are recovering from “Wolf Parts,” you may want to skip ahead and read “The Migrants.” Bell has been compared stylistically to Cormac McCarthy (among others), and “The Migrants” will put you in the mind of that worthy author in this disturbing tale of aggressors and victims who switch sides at seemingly capricious whim. The timing of the publication of this volume, during the senseless violence in Charlotte, makes “The Migrants,” set in a time or place that could be the Bosnia of the mid-1990s to the Somalia (or Baltimore) of right now, all the more timely.

There is more. So much more. In “The Cartographer,” an expert at mapping out cities and countries slowly, and too late, discovers the valleys being created within his own relationship. “For You We Are Holding” charts relationships in a different way. It is a cautionary story about smartphones, computers and apps, and how they have changed how we relate to each other on the most fundamental of levels. Bell goes very deeply into his subject matter to offer what is perhaps the best observation about where technology has taken us, and where we are going, that I have ever read. One might want to start with this story when picking up the book, just to dip one’s toe into this dark, corrosive literary pond that Bell has created. Did I say dark? Again? I can’t do that without mentioning “A Long Walk with Only Chalk to Mark the Way.” This tale, about the relationship between a father and his hospitalized son, is one of those stories that telegraphs that it is going to end badly. It’s a matter of degree. It might be the best story in the book; you might regret reading it. It certainly will stay with you.

As for my own favorite? It’s nice of you to ask, though you might wonder about me. It’s “Dredge,” about a man named Punter who decides to play detective to a crime of which he is a part, and possibly the only part. As “Dredge” proceeds, Bell doles out informative breadcrumbs that show without telling how Punter has arrived where he has and foretell an ending that was writ large before the story even started.

Bell is so good that it’s going to be hard to read anything else. Even when he is surreal, you can feel him tearing down the barriers that we build to shield ourselves from the horror of what is real. It’s not for children, and really not for adults, either. Yet you simply must read him, again and again.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on September 23, 2016

A Tree or a Person or a Wall: Stories
by Matt Bell

  • Publication Date: September 13, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Soho Press
  • ISBN-10: 1616955236
  • ISBN-13: 9781616955236