Several years ago I took a weekend workshop with Aimee Bender at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House. The class was called “Writing Outside Realism,” and it was an excellent reminder of why writing fiction is fun. (I don’t know about you, but I need a lot of reminding.) We invented opposites (What’s the opposite of a three-legged dog in a field? A mansion on fire. What’s the opposite of the Moonlight Sonata Prom, Chicago? Mobsterville, Long Island). We drew from a deck of optical illusion cards to create relationships between characters. Bender offered advice on writing non-realist fiction that isn’t a cop-out. No alarm clocks at the end of the story, waking readers up from the fictional dream, and no mini alarm clocks either, buzzing us out of bizarre moments. Also, no “they’re all cows stories,” by which she meant something like no cheap tricks. Writing stories with a conventional beginning, middle, and end bored her, she said. Her daily guide for how a story is coming along is to ask herself, Am I still interested in this?
I’m always interested in Bender-style fun, and so when I heard she had a new novel on the way, I asked for an advance copy. Like Eryn Loeb here at The Millions, I devoured The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and enjoyed its sweet, melancholy flavors. If I hadn’t read Bender’s superb story collections, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures, I would have felt satiated: a delightful, imaginative, affecting novel—an ample serving of literary entertainment. Because if reading Bender’s stories was like creeping downstairs in the middle of the night to eat all the leftover cake with my hands — that much better for the darkness, for the raw, guilty lust — this new novel is summer afternoon, garden party fare.
In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Rose discovers that she can taste her mother’s unhappiness in her ninth birthday cake. Sickened by this unfortunate magical power, Rose seeks out food from vending machines, from boxes and cans—food that tastes of the blandness of factories, not the pungency of human emotions. Rose’s family exudes quirkiness and harbors secrets; they are intriguing, idiosyncratic characters. But as we follow them through the novel, we become accustomed to their eccentricities. Their weirdness and loneliness come to seem less weird and less lonely.
Though Rose’s daily struggles to connect with her family and to eat a meal without ingesting the suffering of others are engaging, her story doesn’t feel urgent. Still, the tenderness of the language consistently enchants, and Bender skillfully captures the way that people in families, though they may all live in the same house, can be fundamentally mysterious to each other. About her brother, Rose wonders: “what he knew about the family; what he didn’t know. What family he lived in.” The height of intimacy between Rose and her dad is sitting on the couch together watching a medical drama on TV. The fantastical conceit of the book—Rose’s ability to taste people’s emotions in the food they’ve prepared—is easily translated as the dilemma of a perceptive kid among willfully oblivious adults. The kid feels smarter than the adults, and that’s kind of interesting, but it’s also disconcerting. Nevertheless, she grows up and finds ways to cope. Though the lemon cake tastes bitter to Rose, it’s still lemon cake.
Bender’s first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, does for numbers what The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake does for food. It invests them with emotional power, as sources of magic, obsession, and anxiety in a young woman’s life. Mona teaches math to elementary school students, and her innovative methods are part of the book’s unsettling fun. In her Numbers and Materials sessions, second graders bring number-shaped materials to class to practice subtraction. Danny, whose father lost an arm, brings in the arm (encased in glass) to represent a one. Lisa, whose mother is dying of cancer, presents an I.V. tube for a zero. Mona herself contributes an axe as a seven. Violence and disease lurk in this town, where the most notable site is the twelve-story hospital built entirely of blue glass. Despite the gloomy milieu, the overall tone here is whimsical. Bender’s inventive details entertain, and the voices of the characters are fresh and poignant, particularly those of the children, who could have been overly cute in the hands of a lesser writer. The novel captures the experience of a beginning teacher who can relate to her class because she’s childlike herself, in both appealing and crippling ways. She is strong-willed, imaginative, and alert to adult phoniness. She’s also afraid of adult desire (in the form of a cute science teacher who teaches about health by having kids act out the symptoms of various diseases) and terrified of what she doesn’t understand about her own parents.
The best part of the book—and here again I’ll betray my preference for Bender in her sharp, succinct mode—is the story that frames it. The Prologue gives us the tale of a kingdom where everyone lived forever. Then one day, because of overcrowding, the king orders everyone to sacrifice a family member. One family’s solution is to each sacrifice body parts—a leg, an arm, an ear, a foot, a head of hair, a nose—and so they live on, dismembered but together. The Prologue closes with Mona’s revelation that her father told her this story on her tenth birthday, setting off the feelings of alienation from family and self that plague her for the next ten years. At the end of the novel, Lisa — she of the I.V. for a zero, the dying mother — asks Mona for a math story. Mona tells her a version of her father’s story, about a pirate kingdom where “there were no glass hospitals and red wigs and I.V.’s,” where “[c]ancer was not a big deal.” The king, an astute mathematician, calculates that each household must choose one pirate to die. But this time, rather than see her family mutilated, the daughter decides to move to another, mortal, town, despite their warning that “Once you die, you won’t get to hear or walk or use your hands or comb your hair at all.” This mournful tale illuminates Mona’s struggle to separate from her family, as well as her capacity to reach out to this little girl who is about to lose her mother. It’s beautiful how the two versions of the story act as metaphors for the journey Mona takes in the novel. It’s also striking how much Bender can convey in the small space of a bittersweet fairytale.
Bender was asked in an interview, collected in Conversations with American Women Writers, “What draws you to the fairy tale method of storytelling,” and she replied, “Everything. The imagination, the brevity, the violence, the sexuality, the humor, the great weird simple laden images like glass coffins, the melting feeling of being told a story. All of it.” Bender’s collections offer us all of this, story after story. In “End of the Line,” from Willful Creatures, Bender creates one of her wonderful fables. A man goes to a pet store and buys a little man in a cage. He likes the little man’s stories, and he also gets a kick out of torturing him. “His little body was so small it was hard to imagine it hurt that much.” But of course it does hurt, and finally the man unlocks the door of his captive’s cage. When the little man heads toward home, the big man follows him. Shut out of the tiny village, he picks up a hat the size of his thumb. A little girl watches “the giant outside put her hat on his enormous head and could not understand the size of the pity that kept unbuckling in her heart.” The story is rich with metaphorical possibility, and thanks to the great precision and idiosyncrasy of the details, you never feel that it’s operating on an easily translatable (and thus crude) symbolic level. Bender’s favorite quote is from André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto: “Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything.” About Breton’s directive, she told The New York Times, “I love it, but I don’t know if I exactly understand it.” Her stories understand it.
“Motherfucker,” another story in Willful Creatures, charmingly defines the personage of its title not as a consummate jerk, but as a man who romantically pursues mothers. His latest conquest is a movie star, loved by all and deeply sad, though only the motherfucker can see this. “Desire is a house. Desire needs closed space,” he tells her, and their lovemaking is “a house of desire the exact size and shape of her.” It doesn’t work out between them—she has her career, he has so many other single mothers to service—and we feel that this is how it should be, these two souls left with the loneliness of their desire.
Reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I craved the harshness of the stories, in which the characters are often unkind and reckless, their motives rash and self-destructive. They can be deceitful in ways that are cruel, but funny. The promiscuous narrator in “Fell This Girl” from The Girl in a Flammable Skirt relies on her depressed, overweight sister Eleanor to make her feel better about herself. “I love to go shopping with Eleanor because in contrast I look so great in everything,” she says. In “Fugue,” an “ugly child,” who had been “an ugly teenager” and is now “an ugly adult,” takes a job at a factory where he deliberately puts pills in the wrong bottles. Before that he had a job teaching English to immigrants, and he taught them that “pussy means woman and asshole means friend.” The pleasure of these stories about not very nice people lies in the acerbity of their thoughts, the deviousness of their actions. And the pleasure of the stories about surreal people—a family of pumpkinheads, a woman with potato babies, a girl with a hand of fire, a boy with fingers shaped like keys—lies in their surprising otherness, which is simultaneously inaccessible and moving.
Bender’s novels and her stories, then, feed somewhat different desires. Rose and Mona of the novels are endearing, realistic figures. We like and trust them and hope they will learn to resolve the challenges that life has presented them. We affect the position of a sympathetic observer, cheering on our heroine, trying to understand her struggles. The stories, on the other hand, offer creeping-downstairs-in-the-middle-of-the-night fun. Arousing our many appetites, they lead us out of our houses, our small towns, ourselves—and down one of the saddest roads to everything.