By Matt Bell
Soho Press, 2015
320 pages, $20.94
Reviewed by Chase Burke
Matt Bell’s stellar 2013 novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods wrestled with the terrors of marriage and parenthood as manifested through impossible, mythical creatures and under-house labyrinthes. In The House was a hell of a first novel, the long-form fabulist culmination of Bell’s dark, elemental short fiction. Scrapper, released in the fall of 2015, is different—it’s a purposeful shift toward the real, or, at least, the realer. Of course, this is still Matt Bell we’re talking about here, so his vision of “realer life” is still strange, unsettling, and pointedly mythic, satisfyingly so.
Scrapper takes place in a version of Detroit—“an American exclusion zone”—that could exist tomorrow or ten years from now and follows Kelly, a man who spends his time breaking into dilapidated or condemned houses, factories, and buildings in order to tear into the walls and salvage any scrap metal he can sell. It’s a rough life in a rough city, one made worse by the failures of capitalism and the broken promises of business. “See,” Bell says at the start, commanding, directing, “the half-life of every man and machine and place. See the plant closing. See the half-hearted inhabitations, the long vacancy that followed, the future lack. The slow crumble to here.” Here is broken, and Kelly survives as he can, as he must, amongst the rubble of the city’s center.
The novel opens with a discovery and a rescue: while Kelly is scrapping an old house, he finds a boy chained in the basement. Rescuing the boy—Daniel, but always, to Kelly, the boy—makes Kelly a hero, but it also sets in motion the unraveling of his own life, or perhaps a regression toward his baser self. Kelly becomes obsessed with finding the boy’s kidnapper, and from here the novel dives headfirst into the darkness and danger lurking in our hearts, even when our intentions are good, even when we are trying to atone for the sins of our past. Kelly has sins, and they’re heinous, and he’s been running from them for a long, long time.
Bell implicates the reader, or forces the reader’s attention, in more ways than the aforementioned use of commanding language. There are entire sections in the second-person point of view devoted to the boy’s kidnapper, the man Kelly thinks of as “the man in the red slicker”. These sections are direct, accusatory, and unrelenting, companions to an ever-more-obsessive Kelly. “You had a past,” Bell tells us, “but in the present it was only this you who remained, this you and a boy, one boy at a time. Or so it had been, before the intruder.” The kidnapper’s past is erased: he could be anyone. He is a clean slate of dark motivations.
But this is Kelly’s story, and Bell has structured his novel to reflect back on Kelly in all instances. Kelly keeps everyone at arm’s length, stripping them of their names, returning them to elemental figures in his mind: the boy, the mother, the father, the brother, the girl with the limp, the man in the red slicker, etc. He thinks of himself both as the scrapper and the salvor, a personality split in two, a man yearning to take and a man yearning to save. He is someone who wants to do right but who does not know how. “Nothing was assembled special, nothing and no one,” Bell writes, “but the plainest objects could be supercharged by attention, made nuclear by suggestion.” Kelly is not special, but he feels charged, equally electrified and commanded, to make more of himself after rescuing the boy. That what he makes is flawed, imperfect, wrong, is Bell’s hard thesis, his reflection in words of the reality for so many: the world we have built is broken, and any kind of positive transformation is necessarily warped to mutation.
In what is already a polarizing novel, Bell goes further by moving, without explanation, into the wider world to follow characters we never see again, who seem to have no bearing on Kelly’s story. Guantánamo, Florida, Pripyat: these places are not Detroit, they are not The Zone, but they are integral to understanding Bell’s mission in Scrapper, because each reflects a deeper truth about Kelly. GUANTÁNAMO follows a rapper who is making a documentary on the prison in order to see “if art could move the masses.” He wants to do good, like Kelly does after finding the boy, but he is ultimately unable to commit to what he has to do. Kelly’s story picks up this thread and leads to FLORIDA, where we follow “the killer, who did not know he was a killer yet,” a man who must be George Zimmerman. The killer, Bell says, “was not afraid of meeting one of these thugs while he patrolled the streets, in command of the neighborhood watch.” This is Kelly, seeking justice for the boy’s kidnapping. And finally, at the novel’s end, there is PRIPYAT, the city devastated by the Chernobyl disaster—Bell gives us literal fallout to mirror the consequences of Kelly’s actions. The real world flattened into the choices we make, the repercussions, the reverberations.
“Context is king but what if the context were demolished,” we are asked at the novel’s start. Does context even matter when someone suffers? Bell’s dramatic language is the lifeblood of Scrapper, and even setting aside the book’s many merits, it is the one real constant accompanying the reader through the shifting perspectives and experimental structure. Bell grabs us with his devastating sentences (or “spells,” as Benjamin Percy says on the novel’s cover) and makes us question ourselves in the same way we question Kelly. Scrapper does not offer easy answers, but then how do you answer suffering? Such is “the slow progress of art: the crisis [is] happening now but the solution waits in the future.” A book like Scrapper forces us to reckon with our collective crises, and while it can’t offer a solution for why they happen, it just might help us arrive at one sooner rather than later.