Fear and Violence: An Interview with Matt Bell

Article by keaton

Ever since reading Matt Bell’s utterly stunning debut novel, IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS, two years ago, I’ve been eagerly anticipating his next work. Suffice to say, I was ecstatic when I saw his follow-up, SCRAPPER, slated for release this September. However, it became quickly apparent this would not be another surreal fable like IN THE HOUSE. There would be no mythic bears, no stars falling from the sky. Instead, SCRAPPER—while written in the same flowing, lyrical prose style—promised something darker and much closer to our reality. Still, like all of Bell’s fiction, it was not what I expected, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Around the time of the 2012 presidential election, just as he was finishing the final draft of IN THE HOUSE, Bell realized his next book would be different. Despite the profound uniqueness of IN THE HOUSE and the critical praise it received, he nevertheless ended up feeling constrained by the supremely allegorical and fantastic elements of its story: “I didn’t have room for engaging with the things I care about politically and culturally, and I knew I wanted my next book to make space for that.” Also, as a lifelong Michigander, he had always wanted to set a work of fiction in his home state. Yet, it wasn’t until he saw "Dismantling Detroit," a documentary short by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (of Jesus Camp fame), that the idea that would become SCRAPPER began to take shape. The five-minute film follows a group of jobless men collecting scrap metal from the decrepit remains of shut down factories scattered about the city that was once the vital pumping heart of American industry. It is a bleak portrait of a fallen metropolis reduced to nothing but rust, dust, fire, and darkness.

Buzzwords like “dystopian” and “post-apocalyptic” easily arise when watching this short. And such descriptors have also understandably been used in reference to SCRAPPER. However, there is a significant and unsettling difference between Bell’s novel and most other dystopian fiction. Whereas such works are usually set somewhere in the distant or not-so distant future, SCRAPPER takes place now. It is the story of our present apocalypse.

From this set-up, it’s not difficult to see that SCRAPPER is a harrowing read, and Bell is quick to admit, “It was hard to write, you know?” A great part of that difficulty lies in the fact that as much as this is the story of a city, it is also the story of a man. At the center of this darkness is Kelly, a loner living off what he scrounges from the abandoned sector of Detroit known as “The Zone.” He is our Rosetta Stone for the world around him—the personification of the decaying city, sifting through the remnants of the past, selling off what he can in order to stave off the encroachment of a hopeless future. Kelly is a man of secrets, guilt, and self-loathing. When he stumbles upon a kidnapped boy in an abandoned house, he begins a disturbing quest for justice and redemption, culminating in a reckoning at the intersection of who we are and who we choose to be.

“Much of SCRAPPER is about the relationship between fear and violence,” Bell tells me. They form a cycle. One so easily leading to and enforcing the other, especially when it is codified in a moral sense. He continues: “The massive amount of violence we’ve caused in the world is based on the belief that we’re doing something good.” It is a sentiment that has been echoed by everyone from Sigmund Freud down to William T. Vollmann, whose monumental treatise RISING UP AND RISING DOWN sought to establish a “moral calculus” able to determine when the use of violence is warranted and ethical. Yet, in those works, this feeling of righteousness is never as personal as Bell makes it in SCRAPPER. Through Kelly, the macro-level socioeconomic violence wrought by rapacious and unchecked capitalism that led to the fall of Detroit finds its parallel within the most corrosive notions of traditional masculinity. For Bell, "To violently protect what is yours from others you believe are going to take it from you is a gross belief and...is tied up in the idea of man as steward, dominator, protector." On his quest, Kelly is constantly at odds with this concept, traipsing over the fine line between becoming "the salvor"—he who saves—and "the scrapper"—he who destroys. He wants to protect the vulnerable, even as he is himself a victimizer. He wants to redeem himself, even at the cost of his own destruction. He wants to conquer the fear he has harbored within himself ever since childhood. Yet, violence is the only avenue he finds available.

This brings us to the questions at the heart of SCRAPPER. Can violence be used for good, or does it only perpetuate suffering? Is there redemption for the most vilified among us? Kelly himself wonders, "whether the invisible evil all men carried was something they were born into or...something they chose.” To Bell, the answers lie in our ability to see even the despicable “as a fellow human.” Our tendency to immediately ostracize other perpetrators of heinous crimes—pedophiles, murderers, rapists, school shooters, etc.—to make “them” monsters separate from and less human than “us”—only helps perpetuate the cycle of fear and violence that plagues society. SCRAPPER pulls this conundrum out into the light, even though it’s the last thing most of us want to address. “We...do ourselves a disservice by hiding these things away,” Bell says. That is why SCRAPPER, as an exploration of the morality of choice, is an important work of fiction. It shows us that while we can never undo the evils of our past, they do not have to define our future. It is a complex and troubling notion played out masterfully in this dark and brutal book. But as Bell says, “We don’t need narratives that placate and make us feel safe.”

Because it is only when we face the darkness that we find hope.

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ISBN: 9781616955212
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Soho Press - September 15th, 2015

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