This is certainly the case in his first full-length book of short stories, How They Were Found. I had read many of these stories before in some form, and yet when I came to them again I found myself every bit as enthralled, sucked in and emotionally drained as the first time I encountered them. This is the mark of a truly gifted storyteller: the ability to craft a story that will withstand many readings or tellings and hold its shape and sound, that will challenge the mind forever like a well-planned labyrinth.
This is not to detract from Bell’s otherworldly way with language. The language was the first thing I came to appreciate about Bell’s writing: the twisted, dark, hopeful way that words seem to pour themselves onto the page in his stories and into the brain of his readers, illustrating the dark, cold world, for example, of “The Receiving Tower”:
Most nights, we climb to the tower’s roof to stand together beneath the satellite dishes, where we watch the hundreds of meteorites fall through the aurora and across the arctic sky. Trapped high in the atmosphere, they streak the horizon then flare out, with only the rarest among them surviving long enough to burst into either mountains or tundra, that madness of snow and ice beneath us.
Once, Cormack stood beside me and prayed aloud that one might crash into the receiving tower instead and free us all.
Once, I knew which one of us Cormack actually was.
But the language is never just sort of sitting there, never wallowing in its own language-y-ness or preening on the page. Bell uses language to build his stories. He has an extraordinary ear for the music of language, for flow and repetition and rhythm, the ability of words to wrap round the reader and drag them forward, opening and breaking down tunnels to travel through. I know Bell loves video games and I swear as I read some of these stories I could see his mind side scrolling us through, bricking up characters behind walls and forcing them to dig up bombs to break free. This is not to say that the stories are two-dimensional or are mere trickery; they work more like underground dungeons that illuminate only pieces of a map as we work our way through the darkness. Sometimes literally; in “The Cartographer’s Girl,” his protagonist must map his city again and again until he finds a way to find his lost love:
The cartographer once thought this would be the last map he would ever create, that his profession would end with the culmination of this quest, but he knows that it might not. What awaits on the other side of the skinny might be another world, unmapped and unknown. He imagines it as a limbo, a purgatory, a place neither as bad as this world nor as good as the one they are truly destined for. It will take another map to escape that place, to complete the destiny he feels in his bones, in his sextant, in his many compasses. In their many needles, each aching to point the way.
All good writers give their characters obstacles, but Bell always leaves a side door open. Even if the exit is hidden or hard to see or go through, even if it leads to the end or to death. In his clear empathy for the people his characters become, he always gives them an out.
And Bell’s characters are all too human, even the wolf in “Wolf Parts,” his inspired and playfully dark take on the Little Red Riding Hood story. Perhaps this is what I mean when I say Bell is primarily a storyteller; no matter the topic, no matter whether these stories take place in the past or the future or the here and now or the never-was, they reveal something fundamental to what makes us human and consequently, to what makes us take the same paths through those woods, again and again and again. His structure and form draw you in, but the warm bodies and the choices they make, or don’t make, are what keep you here. “Hold on to Your Vacuum” cannons you here, spits you out there, shoves you and punches you and then holds you at arms length for terrible moments of tenderness–and it is in those moments of tenderness that we find out how to measure a life. “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed” dazzles in its language, its simplicity and list form, but ultimately reveals the devastation one family has lived with and after. Just like all Bell’s stories in the collection, this too finally comes down to the deeply personal, the desperately human, the naked history voiced at last:
History, familial, patriarchal and matriarchal: This is not just us, not just my mother and father and brother and sister and myself. This is uncles killed in poker games, aunts smothered in hospitals. This is babies exposed in vacant lots and brothers holding sisters underwater until the ripples stop. This is history as an inevitable, relentless tide.
History, of an event, of a series of events.
History, personal and also partial, as in this index.