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.

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