Saturday, August 24, 2013

Ordinary ("The Color Master" by Aimee Bender)

There's something wonderfully comforting about Aimee Bender's fiction. Willful Creatures, her 2005 collection of stories, is one of the few books that I come back to over and over again, and for good reason:  each of the 15 short tales contained within its pages are strange outliers that exist far from all other forms of literature, like children who've exiled themselves from normal playground business so they can sit in a corner reading Franz Kafka. Her stories break the rules of how stories should be told, not just in style and structure but also content. A boy is born with fingers shaped like keys, and he spends his early years hunting down the doors they fit. A man and a woman, both with pumpkins for heads, conceive a child whose head is a clothes iron. A girl called Debbie is beaten up by motherless high-school bullies and, years later, memories of her begin to blur into one of the bullies' reality. Not all of the stories succeed, but even those small disappointments are warm and soothing. They are marks of an author who is willing to experiment, regardless of the outcome, for the sake of testing the waters and pushing literature into the dark forests where no one else dares wander.

And then there's "Dearth," tucked so casually in the collection's closing pages. I'm not sure if "Dearth" was my introduction to Bender, or if I'd sought it out after being handed a copy of "Ironhead," but eight years later it still holds a special place in my heart's library as a touchstone in my reading life. It's a simple story--a single woman finds potatoes in her kitchen one morning and raises them as her children. There is nothing unnatural about the arrangement, at least not to the woman--she doesn't harangue herself over the absurdity of mothering a brood of starchy vegetables, nor does she think of her situation as particularly strange, just irritating in the same way a dirty dish is irritating. When she tries to rid herself of them, she does so in ways you might expect--eating them, tossing them into the garbage--and then ways that are a bit extreme, like setting them in the road and mailing them to Ireland, "where potatoes belonged." Her duty to these spud-children are clear, even if the point of the story--a commentary on motherhood? on loneliness? on our ability-but-reluctance to love beyond what we understand?--isn't. And that's fine. Because even though Bender is throwing our expectations into the pit of snakes, we trust her to keep us safe. After all, one of the worst crimes an author can commit is to betray the trust of his or her readers.

Eight years after Willful Creatures first appeared, we now have The Color Master, Bender's third collection, and as before, Bender's flair for the surreal and experimental justifies the acclaim she's achieved, not to mention the loyalty of her readers. Sisters travel across the world so one can sew up torn tigers in the jungles of Malaysia. An old German man who's spent his life watching war films believes he's a Nazi deserving of punishment, even though he was little more than a child during the Holocaust. A family contends with "ghosts" who leave duplicates of objects they already own. It would be easy for readers to dismiss Bender as a writer of "weird" stories--that is, stories that are noteworthy only for their bizarreness--but if that were the case, she'd be a forgettable one-trick pony of a writer:  the literary version of a magician who does the same dozen tricks, does them well, but doesn't update them to make them his own and is therefore forgotten.

What makes Bender resistant to such dismissive monikers is her ability to find depth and humanity in curious situations. Throughout her stories, the primary tale hides a complicated understanding of the world in which her characters--and her readers--live, almost like a world parallel to ours in which our oddities and shortcomings are amplified to stunning degrees. In "Wordkeepers," a woman finds that her reliance on all things technological is weakening her grasp of language, and she's forced to point and grunt to make up for her loss; at the same time, a tech-resistant friend of hers remains lucid and intelligent. Similarly, in "The Red Ribbon," a wife's roleplay with her husband rekindles their marital passion while distorting the union itself until the fantasy becomes the only thing holding husband and wife together. As the story closes, the wife becomes obsessed with an old fairy tale about a wife whose head is kept on by a single red ribbon--the symbol of their union, broken when curiosity gets the better of her husband. The events depicted in Bender's stories spring from deeply human places--our fear of being alone, our need to love, our sense of justice--even though they're painted in odd, alien colors. "Tiger-Mending" ends with a failed hug between the sisters; "The Fake Nazi" ends with another old man crying, his eyes suddenly open the world; and "Americca" closes with one of the family's own in a room far away, eating curry paste and crying. Each instance--of embraces, of tears shed, of marriages ended--is a painfully real moment in the middle of a beautiful, uncomfortable hallucination.

But there's a hint--a slight, nagging suggestion--that perhaps her love of finding humanity in the unusual is beginning to wane. The longest story in this collection, "Bad Returns," is a thirty-page tale that starts off promisingly enough--an anti-war protest quietly devolves into a 100-person-strong campus orgy encouraged by its leader for the sake of thievery--but very quickly the plot shifts to incorporate an old man, his daughter, and a ring. Situated at the very center of this collection, "Bad Returns" almost feels like Bender flirting with Mainstream Fiction across a crowded bar, just to see how it feels. The otherworldly aspects of the story are slight and, perhaps more disturbingly, treated as the irregularities they are instead of being accepted as part of the characters' reality. Even more, there's an attempt at overt meaning, with the absurdity of the opening protest-orgy contrasted with the old man's suspect memory, which he may be inventing for ulterior motives. (After the narrator is told she's at an anti-war protest, another marcher says, "Most of us forget we're even at war at all." The narrator thinks about this, telling herself, "I could hardly hold the thought about forgetting in my head. It seemed destined to be forgotten.")

The Color Master is a wonderful collection, and at times it's even touching at a personal level, but the successes stand beside Bender's dalliances with the ordinary, and that's a shame. What makes Bender such a good author is her ability to fuse the abstract and dreamlike with the real, her fearlessness in testing the waters, all without her fiction becoming magic-shop gimmicks. But once you've decided to start dipping toes in Normal waters, you've committed yet another sin against your readers:  you've become boring. After all, nothing is more boring than normal.