Grading Aimee Bender’s THE COLOR MASTER, Story by Story
You know how some people feel about Neil Gaiman? Or Joss Whedon? Or Alan Moore? That level of evangelical-superchurch-backwoods-speaking-in-tongues fandom? That’s how I feel about Aimee Bender and her short stories. They’re the weirdest and most wonderful modern fables. Any one could be a Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie before both gentlemen jumped their sharks.
That said, I was a little nervous about reviewing Bender’s new collection of short stories. I was afraid all my fan-girling would get in the way of my journalistic whatever-you-want-to-call-it. That didn’t happen. This collection was a mixed bag. Which was unfortunate for me, good for my journalistic… whateverness.
Below, the short stories, with letter grades and my comments in red pen.
Right out of the gate, a parable about apples, mean girls, and possible rape told in first person plural. Three pages of gorgeous and creepy. I read the first page out loud to my husband and he thought it was a poem.
THE RED RIBBON
A woman plays prostitute with her husband for a week, and after that nothing is worth her time unless she is paid for it. There is a bit of heavy-handed comparison to that ghost story about the woman with the red ribbon tied to her neck that ultimately I’m not sure works, but I’ve always forgiven Bender for the odd bits that stick out weirdly in her stories, the clamps accidentally left in after surgery, if you will. The story is still deeply disturbing. And affecting. And SEXY.
A talented seamstress and her Burger King employee sister travel to Malaysia, where the sister is set to work sewing the stripes back onto tigers. Again, why a Burger King employee? It just feels weird for the sake of being weird. That said, this story was balls-to-the-wall haunting, and the end, when you find out why the tigers’ stripes are coming off, killed me, just killed me.
This is where Bender starts to lose me a little. The conceit is very Bender-y: a boy realizes he cannot “see” faces, clearly an allegory for learning disabilities/social disorders, some cool ideas and observations, but it didn’t really GO anywhere. There are these parenthetical stories that popped up intermittently toward the end, and I didn’t get why.
ON A SATURDAY AFTERNOON
A girl with a broken heart asks two of her male friends to have a threesome with her and just watches. I wanted to like this story less, this concept feels very small liberal arts college Intro to Short Story Writing, but there was a deep and weird emotional undertow here I was into.
THE FAKE NAZI
An old man who was a boy during the Third Reich turns himself into the police, taking responsibility for war crimes he never committed. My personal WWII fiction fatigue aside, it’s a fascinating premise that, characteristic of Bender in this collection, starts to leak air halfway through, then it gains ballast a little, then it just kind of lands in an unsatisfying way.
Set amongst teenagers in an LA mall, this felt like a period piece (80s/early 90s), but it never provides context clues, so it’s… modern? It did not feel modern at all. That aside, this story, about the subtle ways in which girls are cruel, was fine. It wasn’t anything more than fine, and from this author, fine is NOT fine with me.
This reminded me of an early Stephen King short story- college campus, co-ed roommates,war protest, mysterious stranger who inexplicable possesses jewelry one of the co-eds lost. This story was going somewhere, and then it just didn’t. Maybe this story has a good ending and I just didn’t get it. Or maybe it just doesn’t have a good ending.
Science teacher tries to explain the universe to kids. Short and sweet (I love those Bender three-pagers!), and the ending is just perfection (she can do a good ending! Apparently she just doesn’t feel like it sometimes!)
THE DOCTOR AND THE RABBI
A doctor and a rabbi have an emotional affair. I like when Bender does modern fables. I think she’s done it better; I also think she’s done it much worse.
A person losing her vocabulary because of technology, and the romantic interest fighting to help her keep her vocabulary. This was almost too much of a “Twitter is destroying civilization” lecture of a short story, but it still worked because of the thoughtful world-building, engaging emotional relationship, and unshakeable truth of the piece.
THE COLOR MASTER
A girl learns to dye things perfectly (the color of the moon, sun, etc) as her mentor dies. This ends up being the prequel to the fairy tale “Donkey Skin.” I thought there was some lovely stuff at play, but the this-is-a-prequel ending annoyed me.
A STATE OF VARIANCE
A woman with a symmetrical life gives birth to a perfectly symmetrical son. It’s a cool idea, Bender is full of cool ideas, but I just… it’s like… there wasn’t… Lord, it is really hard to be articulate about something that wasn’t interesting enough.
A family keeps finding things they haven’t purchased popping up in their house, like theft in reverse. This was a haunting and inventive tale, vintage Bender, I dug it.
A woman marries an ogre who ends up devouring their children. A parable about marriage and grief. 19 pages and I cried twice. This is what I wanted from ALL the stories, this high whimsy paired with this deep humanity. I’m glad I at least got it in a couple of the pieces in this collection.
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