a review and overview of the work of Aimee Bender

By Vanessa Hernandez

In Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Joseph, a teenage boy, becomes a chair and it is not a bit of fantasy, or sci-fi, or an allegory about puberty, but a horrible, painstaking reality.

I don’t even know how to describe it, what I saw. There was no blood at all, and how good it would’ve been, to see blood—to see it pouring out of his leg, and the surgery he would’ve needed, the painkillers, the beige rug soaking through… Instead there was only that shimmer of a human leg around the leg of a chair, a soft fading halo of humanness.

In both style and structure, Bender achieves a perfect balance between the real and surreal that gives Joseph’s transformation an eerie resemblance to a child slowly and painfully dying. Like any one who suffers from a terminal disease, he becomes less animate, less able to communicate, less able to understand his debilitating situation and less a part of the living world. Finally, he becomes just a symbol, although a very realistic one at that.

There are many ways that this balance between the everyday and fantastic could collapse; yet Bender manages to make it work. Her use of simple language over the flowery weighs down the absurd elements of the story and allows readers to absorb themselves in the twists and turns of Joseph’s transformation, no matter how crazy they are. In addition, Bender’s narrator, Rose, Joseph’s sister, takes her time to unveil his secret, twenty-eight chapters to be exact, building up to this scene layer by layer. Certain passages hint at the strangeness behind his actions, but subtlety enough so that readers have little idea what lies ahead for them.

I knocked again, rapping my hand against the wall…After ten minutes, he strode into the room in his pajamas. What, he said…His eyes were caverns. And I could see how he was leaving, how he was halfway out the door. Still, as he stood there, arms crossed, hair flat, grim, tense, I remembered it as a wash of a relief, that he was still there, tangible, able to come in, annoyed, to be in my room. It was an antidote to the feeling that nobody was home.

Bender’s use of foreshadowing and allusion is exquisite and teasing. In two simple sentences she warns readers of Joseph’s future. The phrase, “He was halfway out the door” catches his awareness of his progressing decline and the words “grim” and “tense” hint at the horror to come. What’s fascinating about Lemon Cake is that it is always allowing its readers to care just as much for the fantastic as they would for the everyday.

This is a real achievement. Realist fiction, in its many guises, dominates book sales and yet Bender is an exception: Lemon Cake spent several weeks on the LA Times’ best-seller list. This could be a result of Bender’s straightforward use of language or traditional storytelling, which mirrors many realist novels, but there is something else happening in her work. I think readers are responding to Bender precisely because she enters emotional terrain that neither strict realism nor the fantastic can quite express. As Bender mentions in an interview, “I think realism had been overly dominant in the 80’s and 90’s and a bunch of us were ready to let the pendulum swing back a bit.” By no means has the pendulum swung back, but Bender’s mix of the surreal and the emotionally accessible does offer a third way: a place where the everyday and miraculous coexist, where nothing is certain, and what is most important is not actual truth or television verisimilitude, but people’s experience of the world.

If Lemon Cake were terrific, all this would be a cause for celebration. We would see the possibilities of Bender’s vision fully realized in a novel of some breadth, but this is not the case. In many ways the novel falls flat and that’s a shame because what Bender’s been working towards and what she attempts in Lemon Cake is a serious reconsideration of the scope of what contemporary fiction can accomplish. We can wish Bender greater success with her next novel, but also look to the short stories and see how powerfully she has already realized the contours of her vision. Her stories defy singular or easy interpretations and this seems fitting given her interests. As much as we would like to think that all is understood, we are continuously making new discoveries that defy our understanding of the world. Over and over Bender’s short stories demonstrate that central mystery, of being smart and conscious and still not fully getting it.

Traditionally, a mystery has some sort of detective piecing together clues and solving a crime. In Bender’s mystery, the short story "The Case of the Salt and Pepper Shakers," the narrator is less concerned about finding the criminal and more interested in his own desire to experience what it must feel like to be both killer and a victim. He spends a night in a murdered couple’s house, lounging in their guest bedroom for a better feel of how they were killed. Eventually, he gathers enough evidence to pinpoint a logical suspect, the Cook (it’s always the cook!), yet declines to pursue justice in favor of his own fantasies: with no real evidence, he imagines the couple murdering each other and spending their last conscious moments gazing into the other’s eyes. Although the narrator has the means to find the true answer, he prefers to exist in a state of not knowing. It allows him the freedom to wonder and feel and Bender affords us those same pleasures, the freedom to speculate.

In "Rememberer," Bender shows us the complications of attempting to understand everything. Her narrator, Annie, cannot stop analyzing everything and most prominently her failed relationship with a man who has devolved into a single-celled organism. Instead of trying to move on from the past, the narrator makes sure to keep her number posted in the phonebooks, walks around her neighborhood each night hoping to spot him, and searches the seashore, just in case he might wash up in the sand. She cannot accept that her boyfriend is now less human than a sea anemone and that some problems cannot be solved. As her boyfriend puts it earlier in the story, “‘Annie, don’t you see?...Our brains are just getting bigger and bigger, and the world dries up and dies when there’s too much thought and not enough heart.’” It’s a beautiful story of non-acceptance and the limits of rationality.

The same could be said for most of Bender’s work. To fully enjoy it readers must abandon their desire for meaning and resolution and embrace the unknown. It’s a stunning proposition. If we accept Bender’s invitation, her stories offer us worlds of unlimited possibilities. All we have to do enter these worlds is to start reading.

©THE CCA Arts Review and Vanessa Hernandez

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