shining the spotlight on short story collections
Windmill Books, 2013
“Do you know the king wants to marry his daughter? Her eyes flashed, for a second, with anger.
What? Put that in the dress too, she said. She dropped her voice to a whisper, every word sharp and clear. Anger, she said. Put anger in the dress.”
The title story of this collection is a clever prequel to a well-known fairy tale which gives you no inkling of where it is going until close to the end, dressed up as it is with fantastical touches such as invoices sent by pigeon, and so on. It has a bitter core for all its surface frivolity, entirely appropriate to its partner tale.
Another story steeped in the language and rhythms of traditional fairy tales is The Devourings, which take several tropes and stitches them together into an exhausting and horrific whole, although I found the ending a little disappointing. Appleless is a charmingly disconcerting little fable about an orchard rejected, and scapegoating, and the consequences.
In some ways these are the most straightforward stories, with recognisable structures. Another fantasy outing, Tiger Mending has a terrific idea at its centre but surrounds it with an unresolved relationship between sisters and an awful lot about food. I wanted more of the concept and the relationship and less of the minutiae. I was left feeling that a couple too many sentences had been edited out somewhere.
These are the kind of rich mythical stories I love, and I would have liked more of them – however there is much to be appreciated in the more contemporary, urban American life stories. One of my favourites of these is Faces, in which a young boy explores his inability to recognise people by more than their context.
Americca (yes, I have spelt that as Bender has) is a kind of poltergeist story in which duplicate items keep turning up in a family’s house – tins of food, ornaments – and how each of them handle it.
Origin Lessons puts us in a class of children (apparently) having the big bang and evolution explained to them, or not.
A State of Variance is another favourite for me, exploring the innate untrustworthiness of absolute symmetry in beauty and what a curse it could be.
The Doctor and The Rabbi is a series of conversations, mostly held over the sorting of a heap of charitable donations, and takes its time, unravelling the motivations and preoccupations of the protagonist.
Wordkeepers playfully contrasts neighbours, one of whom loves and is obsessed by words and their correct usage, while the other seems to be losing his facility with them, and the impact this has on their relationship.
Bender has a habit of starting out apparently giving you a story about one thing, to change tack half way through. The Fake Nazi for example could have been about why someone would want to claim responsibility for things he could not have possibly done, but ends up petering out. Bad Return tells of a monumental scam, in which an anti-war demo/ concept art happening results in 100 naked people having their wallets stolen, it is quite amusing, but is told in a rather pedestrian way, and again having dealt its trump card, wanders off to a slightly different story.
The Red Ribbon takes a camp fire creep-out story as its metaphor for insatiability, demanding-ness and the loss of love – nothing is its own reward – but starts out in one style (which I didn’t care for) then wanders off in a rather different direction, but improves for it.
Then there are a couple I really didn’t care for:
On a Saturday Afternoon, turns that male fantasy of the voyeur and two women on its head, although I’m not sure the result is worth the ink expended, it is still just a bit of rather dull erotica.
Lemonade follows a trip to the Mall for a group of adolescents and charts the gradual realisation of one of them that she is not in fact part of the group. There are some enjoyable conversational gambits, but it’s a bit on the thin side.
So overall there are some interesting and clever stories, but nothing that really sparked a thrill. I wanted to love Tiger Mending as I was reading it, but there was just too much faff going on around the central idea, to make it truly satisfying.
Read Americca by Aimee Bender at Salon.com
About the author: Aimee Bender is the author of five books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) which was a NY Times Notable Book, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) which was an L.A. Times pick of the year, Willful Creatures (2005) which was nominated by The Believer as one of the best books of the year, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010) which recently won the SCIBA award for best fiction, and an Alex Award, and The Color Master, released this last August, a NY Times Notable book for 2013.
About the reviewer: Cherry Potts is the author of two short story collections, Mosaic of Air and Tales Told Before Cockcrow, and the editor/ co-editor for Arachne Press of several anthologies: Lovers’ Lies, Stations, Weird Lies and London Lies.