Thursday, December 31, 2009

Book Review: Aimee Bender, An Invisible Sign Of My Own

Author: Aimee Bender
Publisher/Year: Anchor Books, 2000

Aimee Bender’s first novel (her first book The Girl in the Flammable Skirt was a collection of short stories) An Invisible Sign of My Own is quirky tale of a woman on the edge of compulsive collapse. Given its subject matter, it is not always the easiest novel to wrap your brain around. It holds itself slightly aloft from the reader, as if to underscore the broader theme of incomprehension that weaves its way through story. Regardless, Bender has painted a vivid portrait of psychological disturbance that is as serious and worrisome as it is humorous and enchanting. Not the easiest of combinations to pull off.

The central character of the story is Mona Gray, an obsessive compulsive who has recently retained a job as a math teacher at a local elementary school. She does not appear to have any of the qualifications for this position expect for her neurotic love of math. In her compulsion driven existence, numbers are her greatest comfort and stabilizer. In their absence, she finds herself knocking on wood until her knuckles bleed and washing her mouth out with soap whenever a sexual desire creeps to the surface.

Mona excels in the classroom, despite her lack of experience, thanks in large part to her fanatical attachment to math. She transfers this love to her rambunctious class of second-graders as a means to gain control over their restlessness. Mona charges them with creating numbers out of everyday material, an activity that brings to light numerous emotional foibles of the children. As a result, Mona’s classroom persona begins to give way to her wounded internal world as she becomes entangled in her pupil’s lives to various ends.

Bender’s rendering of Mona’s world is almost like a fairytale—a weird, warped fairytale but a fairytale no less. It is an imaginative tale carried forth by its dark and carefully constructed prose. Bender has created a surreal world wherein her characters drift through compulsions and obsessions with the steps of a professional ballet dancer constantly learning a new routine. You can never quite predict where Bender’s prose is going to lead even though she does not try to hide her character’s motivations and desires. As a result, An Invisible Sign of My Own is a most endearing and idiosyncratic story that creates a heroine and a world like no other.

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