A Genuine Investigator

“But I believe that mysteries surface in unexpected forms, and if I am to be a genuine investigator, then I must follow what I feel needs investigation.”

These words are spoken by a character in a short story by Aimee Bender, but they could just as easily apply to the author herself, whose four books investigate in dazzling prose the mysteries of human emotion.  Bender, who will read from her work and discuss fiction-writing on Thursday at MPC (see below for details), writes stories that are hard to summarize.  A boy whose fingers are keys?  A woman whose children are potatoes?  A girl who is unable to eat food without experiencing the feelings of the person who made it?  When I first heard about Bender’s writing, I didn’t think I would care for it: I thought it might be too sci-fi, or wacky, or whimsical for my tastes.

Boy, was I wrong.

In her two novels, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010) and two collections of stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) and Willful Creatures (2005), Bender writes in an utterly unique voice that marries narrative realism with elements of fantasy and the absurd.  Yet the surreal detail is never really the point.  Yes, a boy is born with keys for fingers, but the story is about finding one’s purpose in life and trying to answer the question “what is the greatest mystery of your family.”  (That is quite a question.)  Yes, the girl can taste her mother’s secret feelings, but is this really so strange?  As children we absorb into our bodies the stories and feelings our mothers and fathers absorbed from their mothers and fathers.  Bender’s surrealist details shine an imaginative light on that which can’t be measured yet may be the truest thing about us.

A major theme running through her work is a hunger for transformation, which can lead some characters to extremes: disfigurement, self-mutilation, the desire to dissolve or pierce through the fixed boundaries of self and escape the burden of loneliness.  In one town there are “scar people.”  The narrator asks, Does it hurt?  “And the scar people nodded, yes.  But it felt somehow wonderful, they said.  For one long second, it felt like the world was holding them close.”

To be held close, cradled, by hurt, comes close to explaining the rich appeal of Bender’s work, which is beautifully written and often quite moving.  In one story, a tiny creature looks at a larger man who is both cruel and forlorn, and cannot understand “the size of the pity that kept unbuckling in her heart.”

Bender’s writing unbuckles our hearts.

Aimee Bender will read from her work and discuss the writing of fiction on Thursday, March 15 in the Sam Karas Room at Monterey Peninsula College. This MPC Guest Authors Series event begins at 7:00 p.m.; tickets ($10) will be available at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.  This MPC Guest Authors Series event is made possible with support from the MPC Humanities Division and English Department, the MPC Foundation and The Arts Council for Monterey County.