Matt Bell’s Favorite Novellas

The Brotherhood of Mutilation and Last Days, by Brian Evenson
Most likely, the only way new readers are going to come to these novellas now will be through their combined form in Evenson’s novel Last Days, but it’s still interesting to think of how they once existed independently of each other. It’s hard for me now to imagine how terrifying The Brotherhood of Mutilation must have been by itself, published years before the answers that Last Days delivers. Of course, the answers have a high cost—both physically, in the increasing number of amputations required of Kline, the detective at the heart of the mystery, and also spiritually, as Kline’s actions take him further away from what little about him remains human. Perhaps, in that sense, The Brotherhood of Mutilation suggested a wider range of options for Kline’s future, options that in Last Days are narrowed down to a single, horrific thread.

The Name of the World, by Denis Johnson
This was published as a novel, but I don’t believe it for a second. 120-some pages of big fonts and wide spacing, and I’m claiming this as a novella. And it’s better for the classification, I think. The Name of the World is a great book, I think, but it would be too slight if read as a traditional novel—the story here is too simple, and the resolution less than conclusive. Michael Reed, a one-time senatorial aide and current professor, is trapped by grief after his wife and daughter die, relying on the kindness of strangers to keep him from having to take any real action: “People gave me gifts, people liked me, maybe because they sensed I was virtually dead and couldn’t hurt them.” It takes a free-spirited performance artist/amateur stripper named Flower Cannon to break him out of his rut, and although that sounds like the worst possible plot imaginable, it’s done in a vague and magical way here, which keeps the book from being trite and allows it to come closer to accomplishing it’s own goals of revealing “the danger in hiding oneself away from the nauseating vastness of a conscious human life.”

I Am Death, or Bartleby the Monster (A Story of Chicago), by Gary Amdahl
The first novella in a collection of novellas, Amdahl’s I Am Death is reluctantly narrated by Jack, a Chicago journalist, who’s contacted by a mobster who wants Jack to write his biography. Unfortunately, the mobster takes after Melville’s Bartleby, in this case by preferring that his lawyer speak for him at every opportunity, preventing any real work from getting done. Jack and the lawyer, George Swanson, speak to each other in large, self-absorbed sentences, simultaneously self-aware enough to be grandiose while still being blind enough to miss the implications of their own words. At one point, Jack writes himself a note to remind himself that he is “going to pieces in a calm and methodical way,” while the lawyer compares himself to Al Jolson, saying, “Guy spends his whole life being someone else… They couldn’t be Jews so they put on blackface. See, this is George Swanson in mob face.” The novella sets up a great tension between the kind of people who compromise themselves to become successful (or even to have the chance of being successful) and those who cannot or will not, and so are destroyed by the everyday terror of their lives.

Kneller’s Happy Campers, by Etgar Keret
Like all of Keret’s best work, the concept here is fantastic: A world much like our own, only it’s an afterlife populated by nothing but suicides. So it’s kind of shitty there, and no one smiles, and our sad-sack narrator has to go on a road trip to find his ex-girlfriend, who’s also killed herself, only to get mixed up in a variety of angelic plots, messianic craziness, and the usual Etgar Keret mix of violence, confusion, and people trying to be sweet to each other but mostly failing. At one point, the narrator is so depressed he contemplates killing himself again, only to realize that if the punishment for killing yourself is this bad, the punishment for being dumb enough to do it twice must be even worse. Every time I think of that I can’t help but smile, even though I know it shouldn’t be funny. But in Keret’s hands, of course it is, because even though it’s a bad moment for the protagonist, you can almost feel Keret having to restrain his imagination from offing his character just so he could describe this new, worse double-suicide afterlife. It’s the longest thing Keret’s written that I know about, and while it’d probably be a short story if written by anyone else, it felt absolutely epic coming after a couple dozen of his two or three page stories.

Matt Bell is the author of two forthcoming chapbooks, How the Broken Lead the Blind (Willows Wept Press) and The Collectors (Caketrain), and his fiction has appeared or is upcoming in magazines such as Conjunctions, Meridian, Barrelhouse, Monkeybicycle, and Keyhole. Find him HERE.

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