In Aimee Bender’s short stories, the value of life is measured in terms of goodness, succulence and simplicity, all qualities that can be tasted, chewed and ultimately swallowed by the mouth or the mind. In “Appleless” (one of this new book’s many parable-like fictions), the nameless narrator distrusts a girl who doesn’t appreciate the bright-hued, hand-clutched density and watery meat of apples — and the narrator goes on, with the help of others, to devour every last apple in sight. The overachieving seamstress of “Tiger Mending” isn’t satisfied with simply stitching up cut lips and handkerchiefs; she eventually takes a job in a faraway country sewing the stripes back on ruptured tigers (who apparently yawn too widely for their own good). And in one of Bender’s best stories, “The Red Ribbon,” a bored wife can’t enjoy sex with her husband unless he pays her. She likes to keep track of their accumulating ecstasies in a ledger: “‘I need a specific amount, each time,’ she said, ‘or,’ clearing her throat, ‘I feel I will melt into nothingness.’”
For many of Bender’s lost but not always forlorn characters, solid objects help establish their location in an overwhelming world, especially when it comes to dealing with some of the most confusing aspects of that world — other people. (One character even measures her success as a parent according to a questionnaire in Mother Magazine.) Concepts like anger and death seem to need physical embodiment before Bender’s characters can comprehend them.
In the title story, the Color Master and her young apprentice manufacture shoes and dresses for the royal family with newly invented dyes harvested from rocks, leaves, human hair, opals and the feathers of dead birds. For the increasingly confused narrator of “Wordkeepers,” reality loses coherence when she starts forgetting (or misremembering) the names of things, a condition that may be emanating not from her cerebral cortex but from Google. In Bender’s universe, people don’t interact by talking or loving; instead, they find ways to physically invest in one another. In “The Doctor and the Rabbi,” for example, the doctor heals a rabbi he loves by transfusing her with the blood of gentiles and/or atheists like himself. And in “The Devourings,” ogres and people and cakes and birds seem to interact only through some process of ingesting — or being ingested.
Bender is best known for the fabulist elements of her stories, and this new book features many deliberately nondescript characters referred to simply as “the woman” or “the new teacher,” “the ogre” or “the ogre’s wife.” But some of the most successful stories here (the ones that don’t suffer from an excess of peripeteia or whimsy) are those that explore less fabulist locations and people, like the college roommates divided by radically different tastes in boyfriends in “Bad Return” or the Valley girl in “Lemonade,” who drives up and down La Cienega Boulevard and roams the Beverly Center mall with her friends, trying to bring happiness to everybody and everything she meets (even traffic lights): “I like to smile at the men who look mean so they know I believe in their better selves. That makes a difference in the world. This is how you might be able to reform a possible rapist without ever going to psychology school.” It’s the sort of ambition that makes a teenager seem unrealistically optimistic: the daily effort to project her joy and potential onto a world that doesn’t appreciate her.
Good luck, kid.