December 25: “The Migration” by Matt Bell

Merry Christmas to you, Story366! Today is a special day for many people, including my family, who perhaps has had a most perfect day, what Karen and I are calling the best Christmas ever (RIP, George Michael, plus all those Russians on that plane, however …). After a late night last night, sneaking off to shop a bit more—I invaded a Walgreen’s as it was closing after finding all the Walmarts closed—the alarm clock was set to whenever the boys woke up and wanted to commence with the opening of their gifts. The older one was up and ready to go at 6:30—there was NO WAY we were doing that—but we kept him occupied until 8, when Christmas morning was launched. My kids had an extremely happy Christmas, receiving all they asked for and more, and what made it satisfying was how clearly excited they appeared when the wrapping paper came off and they registered what was in their hands. They are good, grateful boys, and I’m glad they had a day like many I had as a kid, the youngest of seven, spoiled by his parents and aunts and uncles and everyone. The highlight was my youngest, opening a giant present he’d asked for, then laughing uncontrollably, the joy flowing out of him in this really basic but lovely route.

We ate a lot, too, starting with a massive breakfast that I thought for some reason was a good idea, followed by snacking all day, then the main event, a really perfect prime rib that Karen and I conspired into perfection—I don’t think I’ve ever made better-tasting food. I got to call some loved ones, took a much-needed nap, and watched my kids play with their presents, more satisfaction, more reliving my fondest childhood memories through them. Is there anything better than that?

I also got to do one of my other favorite things, read short stories, and for today, I saved one of my favorite authors, one of my best friends, and one of the best people I know, Matt Bell. I’ve been too busy and disorganized this last month to plan any great holiday extravaganza for Story366, but knew a while ago I wanted something kind of special on Christmas and chose Matt. Matt’s stories are Christmas-themed at all—far from it—and for a split second, I reconsidered, pegging this story called “The Gift of the Magi,” penned by the candy bar magnate O. Henry. Then I realized that I’d read “The Gift of the Magi” a few dozen times, meaning it was, by my rules, eliminated from Story366 consideration. So back to Matt and his Christmaslessness. However, because I didn’t want to disappoint, I was able to fashion a semi-holiday theme to today and yesterday combined, as yesterday, I covered Marisa Silver and today I’m doing Matt Bell. Get it? Silver bell? Like the Christmas song? Anyway, that’s all I got, holiday-wise. If you’re holding out for a Boxing Day story tomorrow or a New Year’s Eve story on Saturday, well, anything can (but probably won’t) happen.

I sat down today with Matt’s latest collection, A Tree or a Person or a Wall, out from Soho Press, which was for the most part a trip down memory lane. I’ve read so many of these stories before, but even so, I couldn’t help rereading them as they’re so good and I felt nostalgic and that’s what today’s all about, doing things that make you feel good. Pieces like “The Cartographer” or “His Last Great Gift” rank among my favorites, but as prime rib duty called, I realized that I’d spent a lot of time with this book and hadn’t read a new (to me) story yet, which I was going to have to find if I was going to write my post. Even some stories that I thought I hadn’t read I’d read, either forgetting about them or because Matt changed the title. Finally, I got serious, even having to abandon some stories mid-first page, and found a couple of pieces that I’d not read before. One is pretty darned depressing, about a dad whose son is dying in a hospital (“A Long Walk With Only Chalk to Mark the Way,” which ends the collection), and after yesterday’s child death story, I decided to write about the other new piece, “The Migration.”

Note that “The Migration” isn’t all marching bands and cobbler, either. Matt Bell is a lot of things as a writer, but a non-stop joke machine isn’t one of his cap’s particularly large feathers. Several years ago, Matt and I did a few readings together here and there, and at the first one—which I believe was at the KGB Bar—I read first, Matt second. I performed my usual goofy, light shit, which people, while drinking fourteen-dollar cocktails in the East Village on a Friday night, could giggle at. Matt then followed up with his story “Index of How Our Family Was Killed,” which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a fantastic story, written as an actual index (as in the back of a textbook), but it’s as grim as can be, everyone dying horrible deaths, even kids and dogs and at least nine goldfish. After that, we decided Matt would go first if we read together and me second, so when people left, they’d be in a relatively good mood, noting things like, “That first guy was intense and that second guy said ‘fart’ a couple of times.”

That said, “The Migration” is about men who kill and men who migrate. Literally, that’s who the story is about, as we don’t get any character names, just those repeated general descriptions when referring to whomever he’s referring to (both hallmark of much of Bell’s work, repetition and anonymity). We are immediately thrust into a situation, an alternative universe, almost, where the men who kill do a lot of killing, and the men who migrate leave a lot, just to avoid being killed. The story’s longish, twenty-four page, and Bell spends a lot of time setting up the rules of this world via scenarios, like how many killings it takes for a particular group of migrators to jump ship. We also get a lot of details on the circumstances surrounding the killings, like how the killings were executed, how the me wanted the killings to look, and a few rules about the kinds of people they wouldn’t kill (which, eventually, turns out to be nobody).

As the story moves forward, the situations and explanations and justifications for the killings become more intricate, more intense, but at the same time, less discriminate. When it comes down to it, the men in “The Migration” kill not only to kill, but for the side effect: the survivors leaving the place in which they all live. Some of the perpetrators are brought to trial—this is no lawless land—but neither courts nor public opinion can control the inevitable. This is not to say that there isn’t remorse (there is), but the killings seem like duty, like the new world order. Then again, Bell implies that the men who kill might not necessarily be the bad guys, that their cause is just or at the very least, they believe it is just. If anything, the men who kill—this story’s de facto protagonist—are complex.

I’m actually going to stop here, in terms of plot revelation, as I’m actually pretty far into the story. If it seems like I’ve not expressed much specific detail, it’s because “The Migration” isn’t that type of story. This tale is told from a distant third person, from an extremely omniscient viewpoint. Bell’s lens is so far removed because he’s giving us a history here, a rundown, and wants us to see the whole picture, from a particular, well informed vantage point. He does not employ traditional scenes in this story, nor does he utilize anecdotes or even dialogue. The story is told in a cold summary, no hint of judgment in the narrator’s voice, the storyteller’s job to simply relay what has happened. This is the story of a place where men kill other men just because they are killers and they want to be the ones in this place instead of the ones they kill.

A story like “The Migration,” told in this omniscient way, is often allegorical, or at least metaphorical. From what I know about Matt Bell and his work, he’s the least didactic writer working today, meaning he’s not going to let his readers off easy. Still, everything about this story, almost every line, smacks of something standing for something else, Bell trying to tell us this is what the world—our world—is like (though he’s not going to admit it anywhere here). At its most basic, isn’t that what happens, men killing other men to get them to leave? It’s an old story, though told here as if for the first time, Bell’s approach so fresh, so engaging, so syntactically perfect, it’s a masterpiece. Not something for a warm Christmas fire, some cookies and a mug of cocoa at hand, but hey, to each his own.

A Tree or a Person or a Wall is a fine collection, one of the very best of 2016, by one of our best young writers, Matt Bell. It’s easy for me to say that, as I’ve long been an admirer of his work and count him amongst my better friends. If you’ve been in this writing world at all for the past ten years, you probably know about Matt, about his work, his work ethic, his meteoric rise to prominence. I’m really lucky to know this guy, who texted me with holiday wishes as I started this post—my answer to him was to stay tuned. Let this post serves as my response. Happy Christmas to Matt and to all!