An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of Amazon.com:

an-invisible-sign-of-my-own.jpgWith her stunning debut collection of stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender showed herself to be “a writer who makes you glad for the very existence of language” San Francisco Chronicle. The book was a sensation; it spent seven weeks on The Los Angeles Times bestseller list, received ecstatic reviews nationwide, and established Aimee Bender as one of the freshest and most original voices in American fiction.

In An Invisible Sign of My Own, Aimee Bender exceeds her early promise. She gives us the story of Mona Gray, a second-grade math teacher who has just turned twenty–a number which, like all numbers in her life, seems to have a profound significance. Mona lives her life under the shadow of her father’s long, weird, unnamed illness and her own bizarre compulsions. She excels at music, running, and sex, but ceases each activity just at the moment enjoyment becomes intense: Mona is “in love with quitting.” Only numbers provide the order and beauty she craves. “Mix up some numbers and you get an equation for the way the wind shifts or an axiom for the movement of water, or the height of someone, or for how skin feels. You can account for softness. You can explain everything.” With construction paper and Magic Markers, Mona arranges her classroom into “a beautiful museum of numbers,” but that could also describe her life: a collection of oddities, a static place, a hushed and insular world where disruption is unwelcome. Then the science teacher arrives, with burn marks on his fingers and a genius for teaching children the joys of coughing, and Mona’s strange and tidy universe is threatened by love, the supreme disorder. In her luminous, pitch-perfect prose, Bender conjures a dream world much like our own, a fairy tale grounded in a penetrating sense of what moves the human heart.

Like in her collection of short stories, The Girl In The Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender once again gives us a surreal tale of suburban malaise and magical realism. As expected, the protagonist, Mona Gray, is both endearing and eccentric, having had a nearly lifelong love affair with quitting. Mona always seems to be on the verge of mentally imploding (and physically as well, after buying an ax on her 20th birthday) but she keeps her demons at bay by soothing herself with math and numbers, which are solid and dependable and not subject to the random catastrophes that make up a life.

To ward off her father’s impending death from a mysterious and unnamed illness, Mona practices self-denial and cultivates a series of tics. Despite being a gifted runner, Mona quits the high school track team, because “winning is lonely;” the reason behind her statement becomes clear when it is revealed that her father, now a shadowy, lonesome figure in her life, used to be a champion runner. When Mona feels any sexual desire, she eats soap, causing herself to vomit soap bubbles. Mona buys an ax on her 20th birthday and contemplates cutting off various parts of her body, a morbid exchange to keep her father alive. She knocks on wood constantly; if there’s no wood available, she will knock on paper or a pencil, reasonable facsimiles as both things were at least born of trees.

The rituals and superstitions that comprise Mona’s life are disrupted when she becomes a second-grade teacher, despite her lack of a degree and/or experience. Although she was initially reticent to take the job, Mona finds that she shines in the classroom; in fact, teaching gives her the appearance of the order she craves. Of course, Mona’s newfound orderliness doesn’t last as such an environment necessitates that she become emotionally involved in her students’ lives; causing further disarray is Benjamin Smith, the mysterious science teacher who can look past her tics. Mona, however, is so fearful of making a connection that she immediately eats a bar of soap when she gets him to come back to her apartment.

An Invisible Sign of My Own is written in a minimalistic but inventive style. There are times when the surrealism feels a bit forced (surely not everyone in town has a cute identifying quirk?) but Ms. Bender quickly regains her footing. The characters were a bit one-note, especially Benjamin Smith, who serves as the love interest and not much more; he helps Mona experience an epiphany but the reader doesn’t learn much about him beyond that. Part of the problem is that Ms. Bender cannot sustain the surreal atmosphere all throughout her novel, although this same surrealism was pitch perfect in her short stories.

Ms. Bender also spends a lot of time on detail, and such is her gift that these long, detailed narratives do not feel like a chore to read. The passage glides along, limpid and wistful, and suddenly Ms. Bender will succinctly snap the reader to attention:

…When you walk down the street, and you happen upon a baby carriage with a baby inside it, and you peer in the blue awning, the scalloped edges, the squirmy flesh inside, there is one simple given: if all goes right, this baby will live in the world longer than you.

It is all about numbers. It is all about sequence. It’s the mathematical logic of being alive. If everything kept to its normal progression, we would live with the sadness – cry and then walk – but what really breaks us cleanest are the losses that happen out of order.

That alone can summarize the central theme of this novel: that of loss, how it’s never really possible to recover from it, and the lengths that we will go to for the people we love. Don’t let the diaphanous quality of Aimee Bender’s writing fool you. Hers is an understated talent, and a great one, for despite the absurdist quality of her work, she manages to find in them a way to eloquently express her own grief.

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Filed under Debuts, Postmodern Literature

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