Los Angeles-based Aimee Bender’s brand of magical realism recalls the sun-baked darkness of classic noir in tone, but without all those other pesky conventions of the genre. In fact, her stories routinely ditch the pesky conventions and constraints of the rational altogether. She’s a fabulist dealing in truths that can only be told slant, using the surreal to heighten the visibility of the invisible emotional realities which so define our lives and ourselves.
Aimee Bender’s work begins and ends in story, so I recommend beginning and ending your reading with her short story collections to enjoy her storytelling in its purest form.
1. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt – For Bender, form and story are inextricably linked. Hopping across genres and experimenting with structure allows her to tell a simple story with profound impact. Sometimes she braids together different styles within a single story; in “The Fugue” Bender interweaves the voices, the randomness and life-changing potential of every encounter to mimic the connections and disconnections inherent in human interaction. By dabbling in myth, fable, the fairy and folk tales, she deals with events which are mysterious, but not mystical. Magical objects (or objects rendered magical by the protagonists’ responses to them) arrive unbidden and without explanation, sometimes literally into their laps, forcing them to make what sense of them they can. Something as simple as a bowl comes to represent everything incomprehensible in the protagonist’s life. Bender depicts the visible power of invisible wounds and emotional deformities, like the young “Loser” who develops a superhuman ability to find things because he has lost so much, because he himself is lost. In “The Healer” the ice girl’s numbness and the fire girl’s longing for closeness and haplessness in hurting those she touches become physical conditions. “The Rememberer” chronicles the reverse evolution of a promising relationship which devolves until the lovers literally cannot communicate. The supernatural trope evinces the natural responses of bewilderment at the inexplicable loss of intimacy.
2. Pick a novel, either novel. If you enjoy An Invisible Sign of My Own, you’ll appreciate The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. If you don’t enjoy the first one, skip dessert and pick up again with step three. In a short story you don’t miss the interior depth that Bender tends to project onto external objects or make physically manifest in her characters’ bodies, but many readers feel that keenly over the course of a novel. On the other hand, the fantastic elements are sufficiently diluted at that length that the novels might make better points of entry for readers who lack the stamina to suspend disbelief as often as a collection of Bender’s stories demands.
3. Willful Creatures – Here we return to Bender’s forte. This second collection isn’t exactly darker than her first, but the sky is lower. Bender’s writing retains its sparkle, but it’s the reflection of broken mirrors more than the lascivious and mischievous glint in the narrator’s eye. There’s less whimsy and an utter lack of transcendence. Bender’s characters embody their own human frailties with no hint of divine image. The supernatural stands in for what is absent. Even when God appears in “Job’s Jobs”, he serves merely as a foil for the human protagonist, an omnipotent anti-muse. By reading this late in the game, though, we understand why Bender’s characters have no need for spiritual lives; their inward spiritual realities play out physically in their own bodies or in the objects around them.
If you’re hooked at this point Bender has apparently devised a ripped-from-the-fairytale-headlines quest for her true devotees. The Third Elevator has something to do with the nebulous offspring of a swan and a bluebird, looks to be beautifully illustrated and utterly charming, and is currently out-of-print and going for over $2 a page on the Amazon Marketplace. Lit Pub seems to be making a go of getting it back into circulation, but the course of fantastic inter-species avian love never did run smooth….