Review of The Collectors
by Matt Bell
70 pages
Caketrain, 2009
Reviewed by Kimberly King Parsons

Every successful retelling is a unique act, however familiar the story.  Because we know the entirety of Oedipus's fated history—as did the audience at the first performance of Sophocles's play—its crucial "discovery" is not a discovery at all. Instead, the skillful retelling reanimates our horrified fascinations on the spot.  Surprise is usurped by inevitability and plot is trumped by impending doom.  We know what is coming and, in the hands of a self-assured storyteller, this knowing makes us feel complicit and invested, elevated from the status of casual observer.  Such is the case in Matt Bell’s The Collectors, runner-up in the 2008 Caketrain Chapbook Competition.  The brothers in Bell’s novella may not have Oedipus status, but they too are from a family that is cursed and all too familiar.   

In 1947, compulsive hoarders Homer and Langley Collyer were found dead in their Harlem brownstone amidst 150 tons of garbage.  Langley was killed after accidentally triggering one of the many booby-traps he had set for would-be thieves, and Homer, who had gone blind years before, was left to starve to death.  Touted as one of the earliest documented cases of disposophobia, (the fear of throwing things away, AKA "Collyer Brother Syndrome") the Collyer's storyline has cropped up in countless movies, television shows, and books over the years, with E.L. Doctorow's novel Homer and Langley among the most recent.  So why would Bell want to (forgive me) add to the heap?  It's simple:  because he has a unique take and the unwavering command of language necessary to express it.  Like Homer crawling on all fours, listening for Langley, Bell's voice is "like a cricket's, always out of reach, coming from every direction at once." 

This version begins after the accident, with Langley caught in his own trap and Homer attempting to locate him.  The brothers' alternating threads are cut through with inventories, lists of what mattered most to them. Bell unpacks these lives with compassion and utmost care.  A list of clutter moves from the general to the very specific.  A pile is revealed to be musical instruments—soon, trumpets emerge, a trombone.  These lists give way to narrative, to these men and their relationship:  "Both brothers were accomplished musicians, and it is easy to picture them sitting and playing music together, and later, after the lights went out and they began to fight, apart from each other, their only points of connection the accidental melodies they made in the dark."

Fearless in the face of history, Bell inserts an interloper into the story, the collector.  "I came in through the inventory of your home," the collector says, "through the listing of objects written down as if they meant something."  And soon Bell has made these lists mean something, has painstakingly constructed lives out of junk, has coaxed new feelings for a story we have heard over and again.  We know what is going to happen, but it is how that is important.  Meticulously crafted, The Collectors is shocking in its orderliness, its clean sentences and careful arrangement.  Like the compulsion that drives Homer and Langley to hoard, not one word is wasted here.

Editor's Note: The Collectors may be read online at Issuu[dot]com.

Kimberly King Parsons's fiction, interviews, and book reviews have appeared in Columbia:  A Journal of Literature and Art, elimae, Suddenly, Time Out New York, and The Chapbook Review.  She writes the publishing column for The Faster Times and is Development Director at Open City Magazine and Books.  She lives in Queens and is working on a short story collection about liars.

©  Kimberly King Parsons, 2009