From the Publisher
"Aimee Bender's debut is a string of jewels."
"Superbly imagined. Bender has hit the ground running."
"Bender's stories read like modern fableswith a healthy sense of twisted humor thrown in for good measure."
The Village Voice Literary Supplement
"Aimee Bender's stories come as a revelation....She's a thrilling discovery."
Jonathan Lethem, author of Girl in Landscape and As She Climbed Across the Table
"Keep your eye on this writer and her highwire act. I have a feeling she'll be keeping readers breathless for a long time to come."
Dani Shapiro, author of Slow Motion
. . .even though the fairy-tale format [Bender] employs is one hopes just a youthful affectation, [she] has hit the ground running with this debut.
Superbly imagined. Bender has hit the ground running.
...these stories are...catchy...with a winning cheekiness. -- NY Times Book Review
Bender's stories read like modern fables -- with a healthy sense of twisted humor thrown in for good measure.
Many of the stories in Aimee Bender's debut collection are wonderful in theory, and some of them are beautifully executed. Bender shows a fondness for a kind of magic realism jumbled with urban myth, and sometimes her inventiveness has a freewheeling charm. In "Drunken Mimi," a high-school mermaid (who hides her tail under long skirts and whose hair comes equipped with nerve endings) falls for another oddball, the campus imp. In "The Rememberer," a woman watches as her lover undergoes a mysterious reverse evolution, turning first into an ape, eventually into a sea turtle and finally into a salamander whom she has no choice but to release into the sea. Bender captures with sensitivity and eloquence how much the woman misses him, as a man and a lover: "Sometimes I think he'll wash up on shore. A naked man with a startled look. Who has been to history and back. I keep my eyes on the newspaper. I make sure my phone number is listed ... I feed the birds outside and sometimes before I put my one self to bed, I place my hands around my skull to see if it's growing, and wonder what, of any use, would fill it if it did."
Bender's ear is at times undeniably musical. But she also has a weakness for spelling out too much of the obvious. "The Rememberer" might have been simply a delicate story about the elusiveness of love, and the weight of missing someone, if Bender hadn't taken such great pains to spell out what the man, before he devolved, was thinking: "Annie, don't you see? We're all getting too smart. Our brains are just getting bigger and bigger, and the world dries up and dies when there's too much thought and not enough heart." Instead of a character, Bender has given us a spokesman, and other stories suffer from similar heavy-handedness. In "Marzipan," a man develops a basketball-size hole in his stomach after his father dies, and his wife, at 43, gives birth to a baby who isn't a baby at all but her own mother, who'd died not long before. Symbolism, anyone?
And sometimes you can practically hear Bender straining to set up dramatic catalysts for her characters' epiphanies. In "Skinless," a counselor at a home for runaway teens, who is Jewish, encounters a troubled but treacherous young man at the facility, an obvious anti-Semite who has carved a swastika into his bedstead. The swastika bothers her, naturally. Yet later, she allows herself to be blindfolded (and led around) by the boy in a game of "trust" -- never mind that the home happens to be situated near some giant, steep cliffs. Reading fiction always requires some suspension of disbelief, but you can't help wondering what kind of counselor would allow herself to be blindfolded by a such a clearly messed-up lad. Bender seems merely to have manufactured an artificially dangerous situation for her heroine just to make her point, and it's so jarringly blatant that it throws you out of the story. It's just one example of why The Girl in the Flammable Skirt never quite ignites. -- Salon
The everyday people, objects and occurrences in this collection of short stories somehow acquire the bizarre, the grotesque, and the darkly satirical. Loss and desire seem to fuel the events of these lyrical, oddly twisted stories. The unexpected is ever present with startling clarity in Bender's first collection of provocative tales -- Joanna M. Burkhardt, University of Rhode Island College of Continuing Education Library
. . .even though the fairy-tale format [Bender] employs is -- one hopes -- just a youthful affectation, [she] has hit the ground running with this debut. -- Entertainment Weekly
Sixteen stories that, like contemporary fairy tales, disclose those bittersweet truths about life that hide in unlikely and grotesque disguises. A writer engaged as much with the larger world as with the personal, Bender writes in stylish prose about men and women who want to live to the fullest but often find bizarre and unexpected obstacles in their wayobstacles that, while suggesting the tragic nature of existence, are often darkly comic also: In 'Call My Name,' a wealthy young woman spends an afternoon 'auditioning men' only to find that the man she chooses prefers to watch television; in 'Marzipan,' a daughter's mourning is discomposed when her mother comes back from the dead to share the leftover cake the family has kept in the freezer; and 'The Rememberer,' a man who's worried that people think too much, experiences reverse evolution and finally becomes a salamander that his young lover reluctantly releases into the ocean. Meanwhile, the title piece tells of a father who forces his young daughter to wear a stone backpack that will make her sensitive to suffering; her sensitivity, however, becomes so overwhelming that she envies a girl whose flammable skirt caught on fire, because, however briefly, 'her passion had arrived' and, unlike the narrator, she could feel freely. In other standouts, a woman falls in love with a robber who steals rings hidden in kitchen canisters from a rich opera-going householder ('The Ring'); a grieving librarian seduces her male patrons ('Quiet Please'); and a young woman finds it hard to love her wounded husband, who's come back from war without his lips ('What You Left in the Ditch'). A notable debut by a writer who sees not only thespider but also the shining filaments that trap us.
Read an Excerpt
It is quiet in the rest of the library.
Inside the back room, the woman has crawled out from underneath the man. Now fuck me like a dog she tells him. She grips a pillow in her fists and he breathes behind her, hot air down her back which is starting to sweat and slip on his stomach. She doesn't want him to see her face because it is blowing up inside, red and furious, and she's grimacing at the pale white wall which is cool when she puts her hand on it to help her push back into him, get his dick to fill up her body until there's nothing left of her inside: just dick.
The woman is a librarian and today her father has died. She got a phone call from her weeping mother in the morning, threw up and then dressed for work. Sitting at her desk with her back very straight, she asks the young man very politely, the one who always comes into the library to check out bestsellers, asks him when it was he last got laid. He lets out a weird sound and she says shhh, this is a library. She has her hair back and the glasses on but everyone has a librarian fantasy, and she is truly a babe beneath.
I have a fantasy, he says, of a librarian.
She smiles at him but asks her original question again. She doesn't want someone brand new to the business but neither is she looking for a goddamn gigolo. This is an important fuck for her. He tells her it's been a few months and looks sheepish but honest and then hopeful. She says great and tells him there's a back room with a couch for people who get dizzy or sick in the library (which happens surprisingly often), and could he meet her there in five minutes? He nods, he's already telling his friends about this in a monologue in his head. He has green eyes and no wrinkles yet.
They meet in the back and she pulls the shade down on the little window. This is the sex that she wishes would split her open and murder her because she can't deal with a dead father; she's wished him dead so many times that now it's hard to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Is it true? He's really gone? She didn't really want him to die, that is not what she meant when she faced him and imagined knives sticking into his body. This is not what she meant, for him to actually die. She wonders if she invented the phone call, but she remembers the way her mother's voice kept climbing up and up, and it's so real and true she can't bear it and wants to go fuck someone else. The man is tired now but grinning like he can't believe it. He's figuring when he can be there next, but she's sure she'll never want him again. Her hair is down and glasses off and clothes on the floor and she's the fucked librarian and he's looking at her with this look of adoration. She squeezes his wrist and then concentrates on putting herself back together. In ten minutes, she's at the front desk again, telling a youngster about a swell book on aisle ten, and unless you leaned forward to smell her, you'd never know.
There is a mural on the curved ceiling of the library of fairies dancing. Their arms are interwoven, hair loose from the wind. Since people look at the ceiling fairly often when they're at the library, it is a well-known mural. The librarian tilts her head back to take a deep breath. One of the fairies is missing a mouth. It has burned off from the glare of the sunlight, and she is staring at her fairy friends with a purple-eyed look of muteness. The librarian does not like to see this, and looks down to survey the population of her library instead.
She is amazed as she glances around to see how many attractive men there are that day. They are everywhere: leaning over the wood tables, straight-backed in the aisles, men flipping pages with nice hands. The librarian, on this day, the day of her father's death, is overwhelmed by an appetite she has never felt before and she waits for another one of them to approach her desk.
It takes five minutes.
This one is a businessman with a vest. He is asking her about a book on fishing when she propositions him. His face lights up, the young boy comes clean and clear through his eyes, that librarian he knew when he was seven. She had round calves and a low voice.
She has him back in the room; he makes one tentative step forward and then he's on her like Wall Street rain, his suit in a pile on the floor in a full bucket, her dress unbuttoned down, down, one by one until she's naked and the sweat is pooling in her back again. She obliterates herself and then buttons up. This man too wants to see her again, he might want to marry her, he's thinking, but she smiles without teeth and says, man, this is a one-shot deal. Thanks.
If she wanted to, she could do this forever, charge a lot of money and become rich. She has this wonderful body, with full heavy breasts and a curve to her back that makes her pliable like a toy. She wraps her legs around man number three, a long-haired artist type, and her hair shakes loose and he removes her glasses and she fucks him until he's shuddering and trying to moan, but she just keeps saying Sshhh, shhh and it's making him so happy, she keeps saying it even after he's shut up.
The morning goes by like normal except she fucks three more men, sending them out periodically to check her desk, and it's all in the silence, while people shuffle across the wood floor and trade words on paper for more words on paper.
After lunch, the muscleman enters the library.
He is tan and attractive and his arms are busting out of his shirt like balloons. He is with the traveling circus where he lifts a desk with a chair with a person with a child with a dog with a bone. He lifts it up and never drops anything and people cheer.
He also likes to read.
He picks this library because it's the closest to the big top. It's been a tiring week at the circus because the lion tamer had a fit and quit, and so the lions keep roaring. They miss him, and no one else will pet them because they're lions. When the muscleman enters the library, he breathes in the quiet in relief. He notices the librarian right away, the way she is sitting at her desk with this little twist to her lips that only a very careful observer would notice. He approaches her, and she looks at him in surprise. The librarian at this point assumes everyone in the library knows what is going on, but the fact is, they don't. Most of the library people just think it's stuffier than usual and for some reason are having a hard time focusing on their books.
The librarian looks at the muscleman and wants him.
Five minutes, she says, tilting her head toward the back room.
The muscleman nods, but he doesn't know what she's talking about. He goes off to look at the classics, but after five minutes, follows his summons, curious.
The back room has a couch and beige walls. When he enters the room, he's struck by the thickness of the sex smell; it is so pervasive he almost falls over. The librarian is sitting on the couch in her dress which is gray and covers her whole body. Down the center, there is a row of mother-of-pearl buttons and one of them is unbuttoned by accident.
The thing is, the muscleman is not so sure of his librarian fantasies. He is more sure that he likes to lift whatever he can. So he walks over to her in the waddly way that men with big thighs have to walk, and picks her up, couch and all.
Hey, she says, put me down.
The muscleman loves how his shoulders feel, the weight of something important, a life, on his back.
Hey, she says again, this is a library, put me down.
He twirls her gently, to the absent audience and she ducks her head down so as not to collide with the light fixture.
He opens the door and walks out with the couch. He is thoughtful enough to bring it down when they get to the door frame so she doesn't bump her head. She wants to yell at him but they're in the library now.
Two of the men she has fucked are still there, in hopes for a second round. They are stunned and for some reason very jealous when they see her riding the couch like a float at a parade, through the aisles of books. The businessman in the vest holds up a book and after a moment, throws it at her.
You are not Cleopatra! he says, and she ducks and screams, then clamps her hand over her mouth. Her father's funeral is in one day. It is important that there is quiet in a library. The book flies over her head and hits a regular library man who is reading a magazine at a table.
He throws it back, enraged, and they're all over in a second, pages raining down, the dust slapping up into her face. They rustle as they fly and the librarian covers her face because she can't stand to look down at the floor where the books are splayed open on their bindings as if they've been shot.
The muscleman doesn't seem to notice, even though the books are hitting him on his legs, his waist. He lifts her up, on his tiptoes, to the ceiling of the library.
Stand up, he says to her in a low voice, muffled from underneath the couch, stand up and I'll still balance you, I can do it even if you are standing.
She doesn't know what else to do and she can feel his push upward from beneath her. She presses down with her feet to stand, and puts a finger on the huge mural on the ceiling, the mural of the fairies dancing in summer. Right away, she sees the one fairy without the mouth again, and reaches into her bun to remove the pencil that is always kept there. Hair tumbles down. On her tiptoes, she is able to touch the curve of the ceiling where the fairy's mouth should be.
Hold still, she whispers to the muscleman who doesn't hear her, is in his own bliss of strength.
She grips the pencil and with one hand flat on the ceiling steadies herself enough to draw a mouth underneath the nose of the fairy. She tries to draw it as a big wide dancing smile, and darkens the pencil lining a few times. From where she stands, it looks nice, from where she is just inches underneath the painting which is warmed by the sunlight coming into the library.
She doesn't notice until the next day, when she comes to work to clean up the books an hour before her father is put into the ground, that the circle of fairies is altered now. That the laughing ones now pull along one fairy with purple eyes, who is clearly dancing against her will, dragged along with the circle, her mouth wide open and screaming.