annotation by Lee Stoops
“He wondered: was it possible to die simply from an absence of tempo?”
~ Aimee Bender, “Fugue” from The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (89)
Magic realism and Aimee Bender go together like religious figures and jokes about the bars into which they walk. But the label “Magic Realism” doesn’t necessarily help Bender’s reputation. Underneath the absurd, impossible, strange elements of her stories is creative, brave, emotionally-tissued writing. Readers and writing students read Bender because other readers and writing students talk about how interesting and bizarre the content of her stories is, but what they get is more than expected – and usually realized. Bender, through the use of fantastical characters and magical circumstances, quietly, almost as if she is intentionally distracting her audience from enviable crafting, delivers unflinching prose and humanity at its most vulnerable to create stories that slip painlessly into the imagination, where they can fester without hope of ever being forgotten.
Bender’s language is a study in economy. Down to the syllables, she keeps her syntax tight, her sentences direct, and her words to the point. No matter how strange or drawn out a story may get, her prose never strays from that of telling and showing only what needs to be told or shown. That includes eliminating many dialogue tags and quotation marks – reducing everything to its most essential. And, while she writes much of each narrative in passive voice, the circumstances allow for it, especially since most of her stories are told in the first person perspective. The result is a satisfying mix of twisted fairy-tale feel and impassioned, necessary, minimalist, I-was-there-and-need-to-get-it-out-as-quickly-as-I-can-so-I-don’t-forget-it anecdote.
They arrived home at six-fifteen that night; Hannah and I had been concerned – six o’clock marked the start of Worry Time. They announced the double news right away: Daddy’s fine. Mommy’s pregnant.
Are you going to have it? I asked. I like being the youngest, I said. I don’t’ want another kid.
My mother rubbed the back of her neck. Sure, I’ll have it, she said. It’s a special opportunity and I love babies.
My father, on the couch, one had curled up and resting inside his stomach like a birdhead, was in good spirits. We’ll name it after my dad, he said.
If it’s a girl? I asked.
Edwina, he said.
Hannah and I made gagging sounds and he sent us to our rooms for disrespecting Grandpa (41-42, “Marzipan”).
Perhaps the element of Bender’s stories that should define them more absolutely than their magical realism is their ardent, yet whispering displays of human vulnerability. How remarkable is it for a reader to relate so deeply to a woman whose lover is reverse evolving, or to a young girl whose father has a giant hole through his abdomen, or to an orphan who can find anything that’s lost with some kind of sixth sense, or to an imp who pretends to be a school boy and falls in love with a mermaid who pretends to be a school girl, and so on. In each story, Bender steeps the reader in human frailty while the reader thinks he or she is steeping in engaging, impossible-to-set-down stories. Bender does not manipulate, she does not camouflage these elements. In fact, it’s these moments of true human desire and starvation that enable the stories. Some examples of heart-rending, shadow-blasting, humanizing lines:
What did I wish for? I wished for good. That’s all. Just good. My wishes became generalized long ago, in childhood; I learned quick the consequence of wishing specific (5, “The Rememberer”).
This is the sex that she wishes would split her open and murder her because she can’t deal with a dead father; she’s wished him dead so many times that now it’s hard to tell the difference between fantasy and reality (58, “Quiet Please”).
…he showed me how he carved letters into his skin. He’d spelled out OUCH on his leg. Raised and white. I put out a hand and touched it and then I walked directly home. It was hard to feel those letters. They still felt like skin (124, “The Healer”).
I want to fuck her by a Dumpster and cut her down, like she’s a tree, I don’t care if she wants me back, I don’t care if so many people back home love her so much (112, “Fell This Girl”).
These lines, like so many in each of her stories, invite readers to get away from the structures of their daily lives and consider how much pain each person suffers, and how deep the cuts go. It is these kinds of reactions Bender is after with her characters and their circumstances. The magic realism forces the reader to get away from the reality of his or her life so that when Bender drops these bombs, the reader is already removed from, and thereby enabled to access differently, his or her own pain, struggle, loss, secret brokenness. This is the true power of short stories, and Bender, it’s clear, takes full advantage.
Craft, magic, humanity, prose, and secrets aside, the most surprising thing Bender’s stories do is inspire. They inspire readers to keep reading and thinking about their lives and how much strangeness exists. More importantly, they inspire writers to write fearlessly. Good short stories should always do this. A powerful short story, short story writer, or collection might make a writer yearn for his or her own short story or collection that changes minds. But this collection, along with Bender’s particular style, not only makes the writer want to write but it gives the writer permission to do it in new ways. To experiment with the strange. To bring something odd and impossible into the mix because it can and will foster change and discomfort. To challenge the rules of story, of narrative. To challenge the boundaries of verisimilitude. Bender, to be sure, writes with this in mind. How wonderful it is to know the writer is not just writing to entertain or change, but to encourage other writers to go freely after the same.