Everyone who has read Aimee Bender knows that her imagination is uninhibited by conventional notions of realism. Her characters populate a lively dreamscape in which everything is possible. What lies beneath the weirdness, however, are basic truths about ourselves, some of which can be difficult to behold.
But this assessment makes Bender sound too somber. In fact, she is quite funny; her cockeyed wit places her in the same league as Lorrie Moore and George Saunders. Even when they are bewildering, the stories in her new collection, The Color Master, contain memorable lines that may provoke a smile.
Smiling is almost a compulsion with the narrator of Lemonade. “It’s good for human pacifism,” she explains. “This is how you might be able to reform a possible rapist without ever going to psychology school.” By the end of the story, however, the smile masks pain. A lonely high schooler, she looks forward to spending the day at an upscale L.A. mall with her only friend, who belongs to the in crowd. But when a pair of mean girls appears, she soon finds herself discarded like deadwood. A bittersweet delight, the story accurately captures breathless teenspeak with all its insecurity and self-delusion.
Another relationship that is tested is the one between Daniel and Janet, the married couple in The Red Ribbon. Janet thinks getting paid for sex would be fun. At first, Daniel agrees; what’s wrong with a little role-playing? But the plan loses its appeal after her materialism becomes more pronounced.
This is nothing compared to what the ogre and his human wife in The Devourings endure. For awhile they live happily above the clouds with their children. But one night Dad is tricked into eating his little ones. Fee-fi-fo-fum, indeed. Still grieving from the loss after five years, Mom decides she needs some alone time. She hikes through the countryside, sustained by a magic cake that regenerates itself after it is half-eaten. Her adventures help her to find a measure of forgiveness for her husband and herself.
Bender’s title story is also indebted to fairy tales — or one fairy tale, to be exact. Donkeyskin is by the 17th French writer Charles Perrault. In this disturbing fantasy, a widowed king has incestuous feelings toward his daughter. He wants to marry her, but he must first fulfill three almost impossible requests that involve clothing: dresses in the colors of the moon, the sun and the sky, respectively. Bender ingeniously tells The Color Master from the point of view of the dressmaker. Not only a brilliant meditation on art and creativity, it also teaches us a wise lesson about death.
Other stories have similar out-of-the-ordinary situations. In Americca, a family discovers that someone is breaking into their house and leaving needful things behind. Tiger Mending follows a seamstress to Malaysia, where she is asked to stitch up wounded tigers. And the college student in Bad Return has a curious conversation with a possibly psychic old man after a nude antiwar rally.
The Fake Nazi may sound familiar. An old German surrenders to the authorities, claiming to be a Nazi war criminal. But his atrocities are fictional: “He was a revisionist but backwards, adding horrors instead of denying them.” This man never sees the inside of a glass booth; his deception is discovered before he can go to trial. The story, like many of Bender’s stories, veers off in an unexpected direction; sometimes this is welcome, other times it can be frustrating. But that is the price of entering her funhouse.
For example, Wordkeepers begins with the narrator lamenting the loss of language in our text-obsessed world. He “can’t remember the words of things.” He compensates. “With hand gestures, you can fill in a lot of gaps, and the words thing and stuff and –ness also help.” So far, so good. But the story never really goes anywhere; it stops abruptly, leaving us dissatisfied.
But for every Wordkeepers there is a Faces, which explores a boy’s “facial illiteracy,” the inability to distinguish between individuals. “I enjoy the general,” he says. His mom tries to quiz him on his friends’ names but it turns into “a bad Abbott and what’s-his-name routine.” This is Bender at her best, using her signature style to reveal (and perhaps overcome) the obstacles that keep us from understanding each other.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.