An Invisible Sign of My Own

book by Aimee Bender
annotation by Kate Maruyama

Aimee Bender’s spare prose lured me into the fragile world of AN INVISIBLE SIGN OF MY OWN, instantly. It didn’t matter that there was no plot announced, no visible course of story revealed, no genre identified. She describes her world and characters plainly and gives us Mona Gray. Mona is so real for her quirks of character, that despite her need to knock, her urges to suck soap and her strong desire for an axe, we are on board.

Mona’s a math teacher and her obsession with numbers rules her life. At twenty she goes into a second grade classroom and begins to teach. Bender gives us not a gang of stereotypical children, but real little humans. In raising my own kids and working with others I’ve come to realize they’re all a bunch of little weirdos and Bender captures that delightfully. We have Lisa, obsessed with her mother’s cancer and getting downright strange about it, a boy who brings in his father’s severed arm encased in plastic to demonstrate the number one and Ellen who, when excited tends to pee. The conversational patter is very natural and because Mona is undeveloped as a person and her own little weirdo, she speaks their language and they get along quite well.

While the prose was absorbing and the world complete, I felt myself missing some sort of forward motion in Mona’s story. Clearly she is a damaged person, but we never really get to the root of the damage. She has trouble enjoying anything in life and we feel there is something subverted beneath her relationship with her parents, but we never get at what it really is.

Then Bender changes the rules. She seems to enter the realm of the fantastic. We realize that not everything is at it seems and I felt heavy hints of a Tyler Durden coming on.  As Mona’s relationship with Lisa got more intense, I wondered if Lisa was an alter-ego of some sort (both Lisa and Mona’s parents are ill, although Mona’s dad’s illness is never revealed). As her up-til-then very believable second graders had an unreal fight with an axe, I wondered if all of the characters were internal to Mona. Then Mr. Jones and his obsession with numbers seemed a likely alter-ego candidate (perhaps for his predecessor of the eponymous short story by Truman Capote). Then I wondered if Mona’s father had died already and she just wasn’t dealing with it.

With all this puzzling and trying to figure out Bender had me thinking, not, “what’s going to happen?” but “what’s going on?” For all of its grounding in environment and spare prose, the story had derailed and become confusing, baffling, and then annoying for the baffling aspect.  Things get wrapped up, sort of. Mona gets fired, but finally gets the courage to sleep with the science teacher. She forges a lasting friendship with the soon to be orphaned Lisa. It’s unclear what has freed her from the shackles that bound her so tightly for so long. She’s at a peaceable happy place when we leave her, but I wasn’t sure how she got there.

We’re left with some very endearing characters, at the end of a journey in which we aren’t sure what truly happened and what was imagined. That could have been an interesting pattern if we had been in touch with Mona’s emotional arc during that journey, but with the muddle in the heart of the story, it was hard to get a handle.

A friend recommended this book as an examination of “the rules” which I’m trying clearly to define in my own novel. Now I think she may have recommended it as a good question-raising book. It’s a challenge to keep the reader grounded in my characters’ disorientation and to keep a forward movement despite that disorientation. I love Bender’s short stories, and I do love the ethereal quality she gives her worlds, but when this world lost track of itself, I lost track of the story.


The Holy Spirit of My Uncle’s Cojones

book by Marcos McPeek Villatoro

annotation by Judy Sunderland

The Holy Spirit of My Uncle’s Cojones is a novel which the author has assured me is more memoir than most of his other writing. I sincerely hope that a good deal of it is fiction, because if this is autobiographical, it is a lot to digest. It is a common style, a writer, writing about writing; and, is flashback with the narrator getting ready to attend a funeral and rethinking his history. As common as both these devices are, the book is wonderful and a very pleasant read, even though some of the action cannot be described as pleasant.

The narrator of the story is an unusual character…the emotionally disturbed child of a “Salvadorian mother and an Appalachian father” who is shipped off to spend time learning to be a man with his Uncle Jack. It is Uncle Jack who has died now and hence the flashback of the summer of his sixteenth year. There is action in the past, the flashbacks, and action in the future, the adult narrator is being cuckolded by his live-in girlfriend and is trying to come to some decision. His final solution is a fun read.

The writing is full of action and constantly moves. The characters are believable and sympathetic with a peek (no pun intended) into several different social cultures – Salvadorian Immigrant, South American Spiritual Guru, Latin drug runner, and confused teenager, to name a few). Normally, I try to find style and content to morph into my own work, but this is very personal, and although I would be proud to imitate it, I can’t imagine making it sound authentic to my own voice.

Ghost Story

book by Peter Straub

annotation by Kate Maruyama

Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY is a lovely slice of the early eighties in so many ways. Everyone drinks copious amounts of alcohol, philanders, smoke cigars. The town of Millburn is an everyday eighties vision Northeastern town, complete with its old-fashioned movie theater, town diner, cantankerous Sheriff and, of course, the requisite handful of millionaires.

At one point, three remaining heroes enter a house which they know is evil and where they know that at least two people have been horrifically murdered and one character says, “I don’t mind if we split up.” And they split up. I got the giggles. But we have to forgive Straub these anachronisms, it was contemporary in 1980 and these characters had not reaped the lessons that Jason, Freddie and Mike Meyers taught us: DON’T SPLIT UP! STAY TOGETHER!

But beyond the eighties-ness of the story is a very involved, character-driven creepfest with no simple answers and mystery woven into every page. Straub frames the story with the tensely written and very creepy kidnapping of a little girl by what seems to be an evil child-killer, he comes around to this story in the end and turns it on its ear.  After our introduction in a dirty run down motel in Florida, he takes us to the town of Millburn, so all-American that you know something bad will happen. Straub introduces us to a mass of characters, but takes careful time with each of them, so rather than the stereotypes of the small town we are given actual people with desires and difficulties. (The only exception is the seventies tv style Sheriff Hardesty).

There is great fun had with the Chowder Society, (old farts who assemble and tell scary stories), a mysterious author who arrives in town, local teenagers and, while the main villainess is a classically sexist depiction of a vixen, the well-worn stunning philanderer Stella (wife of one of the above old-farts) is so fascinating and complex, she more than makes up for it.  Straub leads us, without rushing, through the eerie happenings of this town and rather than starting all sunshine and ending up in darkness, the book comes over the reader like a storm front. There are flickers of sunshine, spots of darkness, with such steady interspersement so that by the end of the book, I felt like I was living there.  This rhythm and the complexity of these characters had me not only fully absorbed, but terrified on such a level that I didn’t want to see what happened next, but had to. I felt each passing and in a book where someone gets bumped off every few chapters, this is quite an accomplishment.

While I’m not about to resurrect horror conventions of the eighties (nor, I imagine is Straub, who is still putting out gripping, presumably contemporary fiction), I find there are lessons to be learned in slowing down, looking around and building tension.

Straub was also careful to give us no easy answer. Something evil is afoot, but it is an intertwined complex answer that reminds us there is no full understanding of the supernatural to be had. Vampires you stake or burn with sun, werewolves silver bullets, but the evil that inhabits this story and this town is deeper and more involved. Its complexity also sets up a barrier for our heroes to outsmart…how to kill the unkillable? How fun to have heroes use their combined knowledge rather than look stuff up in books.

GHOST STORY is a reminder that there are no easy answers in the world of the supernatural, just as there are no easy answers in the human world. As I forge forward with my own ghost story, trying to weave it into a coherent piece, I’m mindful to honor my characters, give them time where they need to breathe and to let the supernatural remain, as it is to us, somewhat powerful and mysterious.