Aimee Bender is a master of nuance. Her writing has a subtlety that feels smooth and delicate most of the time, and then stops you like a razor to your pulse. I savour her details like a perfect sip of wine or a bite from a deliciously simple and elegant dish.
Her tales saunter on the edges of fantasy and magical realism, or explore real-quirks in ways that give them a mythical quality. Reading them feels just a little bit otherworldly, like something both pleasurable and unnerving that you can’t quite describe. According to the blurb, she is “[b]eloved by readers and critics alike” and I can see how she finds favour with both groups. Her writing is beautiful and so easy to read. Her imagery is enchanting but not simplistic. You look deeper into every story, or just enjoy their dreamy, elusive qualities. Some stories have more or less traditional narratives, while others are more like fictional musings on an idea or character.
“Appleless” is a metaphorical story set in an apple orchard where everyone indulges in the fruit except for one girl who will not eat them. I had to take a minute to think about this one, and came to the conclusion that it’s a story about temptation and decadence. If you take the apples as a symbol or forbidden fruit or lust, then story depicts a society of thoughtless hedonists, and shows what they do to the one individual who has no interest in their excess.
“The Red Ribbon” is a slightly disturbing story of marital discord. I love the ways in which Bender intimates the wife’s unhappiness:
“Time for bed, honey,” she said cheerily, which was code for Don’t touch me.
She certainly liked the image of herself as the benevolent wife with arms full of flowers, but if she bought the flowers she would spend part of the ride home feeling so righteous and pleased that she had bought flowers; what a good wife she was; wasn’t he a lucky man; until, by the time she arrived home with the flowers, she’d be angry he hadn’t bought her flowers.
The wife is bored and unemployed. The details of the story keep suggesting that she’s unhappy because she doesn’t make any money but lives off her husband’s, and that she’s somehow wandered into this situation without meaning to. She takes on a more active role when she revitalizes their sex life by getting her husband to pay her for sex. He enjoys the game for a while but once he tires of it she finds she no longer enjoys it without being paid. The red ribbon in the title refers to a fairytale about a wife who always wears a red ribbon around her neck. When her husband removes it one night, her head falls off.
In “The Devourings” Bender depicts another problematic marriage, this time between a large, ugly woman and an ogre who makes her feel delicate and feminine in comparison. They’re happy together, until he accidentally eats their children. This story went on for a bit too long, I thought, but I liked the strange dynamic between the human and the ogre.
“Faces” was a 2009 Shirley Jackson Award finalist. The award is “for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic”. I suppose “Faces” falls into the first category; it’s a bit hard to define, but I like it a lot anyway. It’s about a belligerent boy who can’t recognise faces or facial expressions. He can’t tell his mother about the children he hangs out with at school; he doesn’t even know their names. His mother appears to him as “big red lips”, his father as mussed hair. He can’t distinguish young from old or alive from dead. I’m not sure if this bothers him, but when he’s questioned about it his reaction is angry and dismissive:
Wasn’t there enough complication in the world already without having to take in the overload of details and universes in every single person’s fucking face?
The weird thing is that he kind of has a point, but at the same time his uncaring attitude is so creepy.
I can see why the collection was named after the story “The Color Master” as it’s undoubtedly one of the best, most enjoyable stories. It’s a fairytale about a group of tailors and shoemakers who specialise in colour. The best of them is the Color Master, but she has grown very old and only comes in for the most difficult requests, like when they have to make a pair of shoes the colour of rock, or a bag the colour of a blooming rose.
They do far more than simply dye cloth; their skills lie in incorporating all the shades and depth of the real thing so that the rock shoes, for example, are indistinguishable from the rocks they imitate and evoke the sense of craggy mountains. The artisans collect colour wherever they find it (“an amazingly rich burgundy off in the driest part of the forest, on a series of leaves […] a new blue in a desiccated pansy, and another in the feathers of a dead bird”), their methods include meditation on colour, texture and being, and their services are so expensive that most of their clients are royalty. The main plot of the story when the king asks them to make a dress the colour of the moon for his daughter. It seems an impossible task, especially since the Color Master is dying. The story follows the narrator, who is not especially talented but has to guide the team through the creative process, putting not only colour but emotion into their work.
I’d already read “Americca” in the anthology Fantastic Women, but it’s a great story so I happily re-read it. It’s about an American family who keep finding strange objects that appear in their home. Some are duplicates of what they already have, some are things they’d never seen before, sometimes things they’d never buy. Besides unnerving them, every object seems to say something about the imperfections of their lives.
There are several plotless character-driven stories most of which weren’t particularly memorable, but were soothing to read. One that really stood out for me however (partly because it was discomforting rather than soothing), was “Lemonade”, about Louanne, an unpopular teenage girl who goes to the mall with a popular ‘friend’ Sylvia who only used her to get a ride. Louanne’s stream-of-consciousness narration is part of what makes this such a good story – it’s intensely self-absorbed, deeply insecure and ridiculously naive, as befits a teenager like her. She overthinks everything, tries way too hard, and gets extremely worried about minor things that no one else notices, like trying to be nice by smiling at people:
And then I walked by a pretty black lady in pink high heels and I forgot to smile at her which means she might’ve thought that I didn’t smile at her because I am racist because, in case she happened to notice, I smile at everyone.
Presumably no one notices that she smiles at everyone and if they did they’d probably think she was insane. Although, being a teenager is a kind of insanity 🙂 The story has a sad side to it in the casual cruelty with which Louanne’s peers treat her, most notably when Sylvia meets up with her boyfriend and another girl, and Louanne is asked to go away:
“Will you leave us alone for half an hour Louanne? […] I need to talk to Sylvia and Jack about something important. I’ll tell you another time, I just have to talk to them alone right now.”
It’s the kind of situation that anyone who was a bit of an outcast at high school will recognise, and that’s what makes it a bit discomfiting to read. I love the way Bender does a psychological close-up of a specific experience though, and it’s the kind of thing that comes up in many of her stories. Another one I wanted to mention was “Wordkeeper” about the effect of technology and social media on our minds and relationships. In the story, people can no longer remember common words because they’re so used to letting phones and computers do their thinking and remembering for them. The narrator relates his deteriorating relationship with a friend and neighbour who is growing increasingly frustrated with people’s dependancy on technology. In one scene, he chooses his email over sex:
She ate the peanuts. She was flushed from the wine. She wanted to take off her clothes, I could feel it, the same way she was undressing peanuts, and I felt it as cruel then, how I didn’t want to do anything with her. Maybe cruel to both of us. But the truth is, I just felt like I had e-mail to check. I could masturbate faster. It was easier, in terms of fallout. Who wants to be in an argument with your neighbor?
Overall, this is a beautiful collection. If you like short stories, especially the kind of stories you find at the intersection between literary fiction and fantasy, then I think you’d love this. Bender’s lovely writing is really something worth indulging in.