Los Angeles writer Aimee Bender seems poised for the beginning of… something. The question of her direction is less a question of her talent, which is certain, and more an issue of the state of American literature itself. Any one who has read Bender’s stories will attest to the fact that they may be the doorway through which a new American style of literature may presently walk through. When reviewing her first collection of short stories, THE GIRL IN THE FLAMMABLE SKIRT, the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE called her “a writer who makes you glad for the very existence of language.” While this may seem like inflated praise for a first time novelist, Bender’s second book, AN INVISIBLE SIGN OF MY OWN far exceeds the expectations of her critics. With a unique voice and view of the world, Aimee Bender is on the verge of something, something big.

Erica Erdman, who was last seen interviewing LA poet Laurel Ann Bogen and IRS editor Carlye Archibeque had a chance to interview Bender via email recently.

Erica Erdman: When did you start writing? Was there someone or something that set you off?

Aimee Bender: I wrote as a kid because I loved reading. It felt like the natural step then and I was definitely encouraged to try it. My first long story was with my friend Kristi Chang and we wrote a long saga about a kangaroo and bat and we traded off writing sentences. But then adolescence kicked me in the butt and I stopped until college.

EE: What did you write first…short stories, poetry, novellas? Which format do you like the best?

AB: I wrote short stories first. I guess I wrote poetry as a teenager but I don’t think that counts. Teenage poetry is possibly its own genre, one that should only be read by teenagers themselves. I don’t have a favorite form though. I like short stories because you can bully through them and I like novels because you can’t.

Carlye Archibeque: How does it feel to walk into a local book store and see your books for sale? Is it something you thought about before you were published?

AB: It definitely feels great. It’s very weird, too, makes all the books in the book store suddenly feel different. I think a few years before I was published, I went to a bookstore and just checked to see where I would go if I ever had a book and just stood there for a second and thought about it.

CA: You’ve gotten some amazing praise. The SF Chronicle’s statement that you were “a writer who makes you glad for the very existence of language” when reviewing your first book seems like it might be a little hard to follow up. How do you deal with something like that? Do you pay attention to the critics?

AB: That was such a great review! I loved it. But I try to keep the big grain of salt with me at all times in terms of reviews. And I try try try to remember that it is always, above all, the work that is why I’m doing this. The reviews can be wonderful, distracting, upsetting, thrilling– but the satisfaction of the work itself is why I’m writing.

CA: Your stories feel so user friendly that it doesn’t seem like it could be considered “literature” in the academic sense, but the writing is so well crafted, it doesn’t seem like it could be anything else. Do you consider yourself to be a writer of literature, pop literature, something in between or nothing close to either?

AB: Thanks! I actually am really glad and gratified to hear it said that way. I like to just write the stuff and let other people decide where it fits.

EE: What do you think of American literature? Have you read any new fiction lately that really affected you?

AB: I loved Lynda Barry’s CRUDDY, I love Donald Barthelme, I think Denis Johnson is amazing, I am excited by the McSweeney’s world of literary journals and by the graphic novels I’ve seen out lately. But it’s true that a lot of the other stuff I gravitate towards is from other places. It seems to me that there’s often more room, for whatever complicated reason, for magic, surrealism, and all its contortions in writing from other countries. THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS (Arundhati Roy) and THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE (Haruki Murakami) — from India and Japan– are two books I read this year that blew me away completely.

CA: Would you continue to write even if you weren’t getting your work published?

AB: Definitely.

EE: Your writing style is very spare, very precise. It allows the strangeness of what you are describing to stand out more than it would if your writing were more elaborate. Is this deliberate or is it simply the style you are most comfortable with?

AB: Expanding has been the challenge for me, because my instinct is to jump straight to the point. It took me awhile to know how to riff when I talked, because I’d just say the bare basics (Q: How are you? A: Fine) Anyway, so it makes sense that my writing is like that too. I think writers are often either concise or expansive and I’m in the concise camp and learning how to expand bit by bit.

EE: You project a huge sympathy toward difference in your stories with no pressure to normalize, is this a conscious personal choice?

AB: It’s not particularly conscious, but it’s nice to hear. I think difference, ultimately, is absurdly important in everything. Including writing style. There’s a pressure to “normalize” writing styles sometimes in workshops, and I fight against that as hard as I can in both my writing and when I teach writing. It seems like holding onto any kind of individuality, as weird and different as it may be, is crucial to a person’s well-being. I hate being squished.

EE: Some of your characters suffer because of their strangeness, but there is little to no whining about their situation, this gives your stories and characters a courage that was lacking in something like EDWARD SCISSORHANDS where you were sure Edward would have given anything to be a “normal boy.” What do you think about the idea of being normal, and why is it that none of your characters make normalizing a goal?

AB: Thank you! I guess you figure even the most mainstream types suffer for their own reasons, so I don’t think strangeness hurts people more than anything else. In fact strangeness can be a saving grace. I feel like writing has taught me something too about not imposing stuff on people. Like with writing. If you can let people be who they are, naturally, they will be so so glad. If you let the writing take its own course, it tends to be so much easier. It’s when the vicious tongs come down to shape and change and “normalize” that everything gets panicked and blocked.

EE: The stories in FLAMMABLE SKIRT were amazingly consistent in quality. Did you write them over a long period of time or straight through?

AB: Both. I wrote a bunch of them in graduate school and it was an incredibly fruitful time for me, I felt like I’d been living in a box and let out. I just gave myself some real room to write for the first time, ever. But also I wrote a couple before and a couple after, so they span about five years, total.

EE: How long did your new novel take you to write?

AB: Three years.

EE: What does the title, AN INVISIBLE SIGN OF MY OWN mean to you?

AB: I guess it means to me this idea that in the book all the characters are, in some way, wearing signs to each other, hoping they’ll get read. Hoping for basic understanding. Some signs, like Mr. Jones’, are highly visible; Mona’s is more hidden. In some ways, the process of the book for her is reading her own invisible sign or seeing who has seen what it says and hearing it read back to her or something like that.

EE: What made you decide to use mathematics and numbers as the context of the book?

AB: It just happened. This relates to the normalizing question– the numbers came out when I was just letting the book preoccupy itself. I was surprised and kind of pleased to see them there because I like numbers and thought it was funny I was writing about them. I liked thinking I was writing a novel about math, it seemed so unexpected to me. I’m no math genius. The numbers didn’t fit at the time and I was sure I’d have to cut them, but I ended up cutting all the other stuff I’d written and going with the math instead.

EE: Are you working on a new project?

AB: Working on stories and what’ll be a new novel that is currently very swampy and murky.

CA: And the time machine question: If you were going to live with a young race of people who knew little or nothing about our world, forever, what three books would you take with you?

AB: Good question! Extremely hard to answer. I like that they’re young. Let’s see. I keep thinking of books that are maybe too bleak, because it’d be nice to give the people some hope. A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE? A WRINKLE IN TIME? NINE STORIES? JESUS’ SON? Sylvia Plath? Gertrude Stein? TS Eliot? I’m leaving the question marks in because it’s so hard to answer. That’s a start. Pick your favorite three, maybe.

Aimee Bender


Aimee Bender

   The work of Aimee Bender is impossible to categorize, so I am not going to try. If you are fortunate enough to own a copy of her first book, a collection of short fiction titled THE GIRL IN THE FLAMABLE SKIRT you have already been exposed to her peculiar magic and reality has begun to change, whether you know it or not. If you have gone a step further and acquired her second book, “An Invisible Sign of My Own”, you will find that Bender’s inimitable style has made the jump from short story to full length novel without a break in stride.

This is very strange writing. Bender’s work is utterly unlike that of anyone else on the current scene, so I will make no literary allusions to her probable inspiration by Surrealists, or by whatever influences are emanating from the subterranean depths of contemporary literature. (Depths that have gone a tad dry, lately.) In any event, Bender has accomplished something so novel with SKIRT that, although I was asked to review just the one book, I sneaked out and bought her second book as well. I had to see if the weird poignancy that imbued the short stories could possibly carry over into a longer piece.

It had.

Bender is obviously a visitor – a guest, definitely from somewhere else. I hope she stays around for a while, because I simply have got to read more of her stuff.

THE GIRL IN THE FLAMABLE SKIRT is a collection of stories whose characters bear strange appetites, some with physical or behavioral characteristics that will make you catch your breath. Bender’s use of metaphor is breathtaking. But the fascinating part is that these characters do not, like the characters in so much of modern fiction, seek to reach a level of “normality”. They do not seek to be undone, or unmade. They are strangers with conviction. They present us with familiar subjects placed in unfamiliar contexts. Suffering, anguish, loss, rage, rapture…within the context of extraordinary experiences, there endures a bloody-minded refusal to be beaten.

With SKIRT, Bender manages stunningly good conceptualizing. The IDEA of these stories is sufficient to endear. “Drunken Mimi” gives us a mermaid who begs an imp to brush her hair…giving foreplay an entirely new meaning. In “The Rememberer”, a woman’s lover happens to express dissatisfaction with the state of modern man…and promptly begins to de-evolve, daily transforming into simpler and simpler organisms. Rendered down to a salamander, he presents a dilemma: he can neither be followed into his metamorphosis nor brought back. How far will his dwindling go? “What You Left in the Ditch” presents a veteran returning from war without lips, his speech as transformed as his ability to kiss. His lover is nonplussed. What has returned to her?

Towards the end of SKIRT, within the title piece, an allegory is provided:

Two rats are hanging out in a labyrinth.

One rat is holding his belly. Man, he says, I am in so much pain. I ate all those sweet little sugar piles they gave us, and now I have a bump on my stomach the size of my head. He turns on his side and shows the other rat the bulge.

The other rat nods sympathetically. Ow, she says.

The first rat cocks his head and squints a little. Hey, he says, did you eat that sweet stuff too?

The second rat nods. The first rat twitches his nose. I don’t get it, he says, look at you. You look robust and aglow, you don’t look sick at all, you look bump-free and gorgeous, you look swinging and sleek. You look plain great! And you say you ate it too?

The second rat nods again. Then how did you stay so fine? asks the first rat, touching his distended belly with a tiny claw.

I didn’t, says the second rat. I’m the dog.

Like the trapezoidal room that distorts the relative size of those who occupy it, Aimee Bender’s world captures, and reveals. What distinguishes Bender is the spare, unrelieved style of her text. There is a minimum of punctuation. She does not use ” ” within her dialogue. This gives an enclosed, contained feel to conversations, as though all exchanges take place within the characters’ heads.

The real world cannot compete with Bender’s, and it yields, in the end, to her suggestion that nothing is at it appears. The allegories in SKIRT give the everyday world additional dimensions. Her second book AN INVISIBLE SIGN OF MY OWN, takes allegory to the next level.

In INVISIBLE SIGN, a young woman, who may or may not be somewhat unstable to begin with, finds herself teaching mathematics to a class of second graders. Like all Bender characters, our math teacher has some peculiarities as do her students. The teacher is a creature of numbers; she is pre-occupied with their subjective value; their secret lives; their talismanic meanings. She prompts her charges to recognize numbers in the everyday world for what they are…portents, promises, even warnings. The question: is she teaching a secret wisdom, or sharing an unresolved madness?

The magnetizing metaphors of INVISIBLE SIGN work brilliantly. Its characters function as numbers, each seeking an operand. There is an algebraic quality to the book, as though combinations of characters, acting one upon another, can produce predictable effects. This is what the teacher seems to be looking for…a formula by which to navigate a life riddled with irrational perils. But her formula is filled with variables: other children, other teachers, townspeople, family members. These spin out of control, and the equation rolls towards an inevitable, devastating conclusion.

Bender’s stories can cause us to permanently question what we have taken for the ordinary, causing us to lose our surety, our emotional footing. Don’t take your eyes off the page no matter how unbalanced it feels. Spend any amount of time reading her work, and you may find your reality forever changed. Aimee Bender has brought us a very strange and very beautiful gift.