I’m dreadfully late to the Aimee Bender adoration club. But you know what they say: better late than never. One silver lining in discovering an author later than the masses is that you have a collection of works to enjoy instead of having to wait too long until you devour their next work. I read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake last year and just loved it. (It was the very first thing I read on my Nook, incidentally.) Isn’t it the best title ever? The “particular” really does it for me, it isn’t just any sadness related to lemon cake. All of her titles are pretty amazing, come to think of it. I just finished reading her first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own (Anchor Books, 2001).
Here is the synopsis from the publisher:
Mona Gray was ten when her father contracted a mysterious illness and she became a quitter, abandoning each of her talents just as pleasure became intense. The only thing she can’t stop doing is math: She knocks on wood, adds her steps, and multiplies people in the park against one another. When Mona begins teaching math to second-graders, she finds a ready audience. But the difficult and wonderful facts of life keep intruding. She finds herself drawn to the new science teacher, who has an unnerving way of seeing through her intricately built façade. Bender brilliantly directs her characters, giving them unexpected emotional depth and setting them in a calamitous world, both fancifully surreal and startlingly familiar.
One of the things I love so much about Bender’s writing is that it is fresh, modern. Her voice and style is unlike any other writer I’ve encountered. To those that claim literary fiction is all boring and full of flowery descriptions, Bender is part of the new generation of writers pushing the craft forward. Taking chances. Giving us beautiful prose married with enthralling stories. All in a way that is engaging, thoughtful and accessible. The accessibility is important, I think, because too much of what I see that emerges as innovation is dense, hard to discern and turns off the average reader.
I want to be clear, Bender’s prose is distilled not stripped down. I admire how she can boil down an emotion to its essence and then slide it cleverly into the beats, the background of a story. There is much to learn from her approach, how she adds the layers to her story that feels so organic and natural.
This paragraph is a great example of what I’m talking about (from page 85):
I try to get out of bed, but my head rushes from the weakness and the nurse has clamped a hand down on Lisa’s shoulder and is guiding her away. I can hear her start to cry in the hallway. They’re taking her to the cancer ward now. Everyone there is bald. Which is hard to see, that is hard too, but if you’re bald, you don’t have hair NOT to brush and so you don’t look matted up, and crazy, and neglected, and old. You just look less.
An Invisible Sign of My Own is centered on the narrator, Mona Gray, giving us front row seats to her obsessions and compulsions. There are lots of external events taking place: the interactions with her 2nd grade math students, a burgeoning relationship with the science teacher, the mystery of her old math teacher/neighbor/hardware store owner and why he wears a number to rate his day, and the sadness and perplexing elements of her father’s illness and estrangement. But what is really driving the plot here is Mona’s internal struggle. Can she rise above her own fear, the security of her compulsions to ask for something more from life? I really enjoyed the parallel between the tension of Mona’s role as teacher to young students but her difficulty with her own childhood. It was almost like giving her a second chance at figuring out what happened to her own family when her father took ill. Bender gives imparts a sense of hope in her stories, a nice contrast to the bleak endings I find elsewhere. It is hard to find hope, to make it feel authentic, but she manages to make me believe.