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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Book Review: Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell

Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell
Mud Luscious Press, 2012
Review by Debrah Lechner

Matt Bell calls Cataclysm Baby a “Novel(la).” I’m not sure I agree with the descriptive “novel”, but the “la” sounds right. La! What the hell is going on here? What part of our deeply buried reptilian brain, where your children and spouse are also food, propelled this voice? How did Matt Bell even survive writing this?

This collection of small works is organized alphabetically, a technique he also used effectively in "An Index of How Our Family Was Killed," a short story in his previous book HowThey Were Found (Keyhole Press, 2011.) Despite the often cutting-edge and experimental nature of those stories, they followed a more traditional method of characterization than anything found in Cataclysm Baby. In this collection, the grotesque is not a quality that ordinary human beings acquire or reveal or have thrust upon them. It is encompassed in the world they live in, as in the story "Virgil, Virlotte, Vitalis," where a father takes his daughter, disguised as his son, on a road trip to the sea where he will shoot at her in order to forcer her to swim to a barge, where all the women left in the world live in order to protect them from men.

In this environment, Bell succeeds in making the ordinary moment of the daughter calling her father “daddy” an element of horror. In the world these characters live in, the term becomes grotesque.

This is inside-out fabulist structure--where the grotesque is the norm and the simplest of human gestures evoke horror--is something Bell accomplishes over and over again. "Virgil, Virlotte, Vitalis" may possess the most protective parental moment in the entire volume. In most of the stories, if I may call these pieces “stories” (I may, I must, I will) children, parents, and siblings are, well, dysfunctional, often disfigured either by birth or dismemberment, routinely and monstrously selfish, sadistic, and homicidal. Not only the children but virtually every character is a human “cataclysm.”

Often I found this funny as well as horrific. I’m not sure what that says about me, or of Bell’s work, but here is an illustrative excerpt from "Beatrice, Bella, Blaise":

To support these interests, we buy stocks of whetstones, of wood blocks
filled with meat knives, of blister-packaged scissors, until at last our house
is pregnant with the voices of children playing, trying only to get nearer to
each other, to have the other close at hand: Tag, you’re it, then, Duck, duck,
goose! The older leads these games, a born teacher, but it is the younger who
best exploits the rules. Every evening their screaming laughter cuts through
our locked bedroom door, until one night we hear only the voice of the
younger, playing all alone.

Here’s another, a very direct way of dealing with a teenager. From "Xarles, Xavier, Xenos":

I put my hand on his shoulder, and then I take it off.

I say, I have decided I would rather have no son than to have you.

I say, I will give you a 50-yard head start, and then I will shoot just once.

If you aren’t killed, then good luck to you.

. . . I say, I do not know I want to kill you, but I suppose I want to have a chance.
Just to see how this thing might feel, that I have daydreamed for so long.

Moments of black humor aside, these stories had the capacity to reach down my esophagus like a fist and grab my gut in what was frankly a most unwelcome way. I prefer the type of horror that externalizes fear and violence, and doesn’t insist that it lives within. These stories are filled with loss, the expectation of grief, and the inevitable severance from what we most hope will bind us to each other. Usually, the cause is a personal choice, sometimes regretted, but chosen nonetheless.

I found that many of these stories hurt.

As mentioned earlier, alphabetization works for Bell. It evokes childhood, and beyond that, there must be a deeply engrained track in the brain that demands completion of this sequence of letters, even when you become reluctant to continue. I’d advise taking these passages slowly, but both the alphabet and Bell’s utterly compelling writing creates a strong urgency to read and read and read. This is true both for the stories themselves and his writing technique. His sentences are pristine, enjoyable for the sheer mastery they show, and it’s impossible to read one and not want another.

Anyone who wants to experience just how powerful a sentence can be will read Cataclysm Baby, forthcoming in April of 2012. I’m a fan, and I’m so glad I didn’t miss it. But did I like it? I may need a little time and a little therapy before I can answer that.

Bell dedicates his book, “For my parents, who survived five cataclysms of their own.” La!

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