An Invisible Sign of My Own

( 12 )

Overview

Aimee Bender’s stunning debut collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, proved her to be one of the freshest voices in American fiction. Now, in her first novel, she builds on that early promise.

Mona Gray was ten when her father contracted a mysterious illness and she became a quitter, abandoning each of her talents just as pleasure became intense. The only thing she can’t stop doing is math: She knocks on wood, adds her steps, and multiplies people in the park against one ...

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An Invisible Sign of My Own: A Novel

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Overview

Aimee Bender’s stunning debut collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, proved her to be one of the freshest voices in American fiction. Now, in her first novel, she builds on that early promise.

Mona Gray was ten when her father contracted a mysterious illness and she became a quitter, abandoning each of her talents just as pleasure became intense. The only thing she can’t stop doing is math: She knocks on wood, adds her steps, and multiplies people in the park against one another. When Mona begins teaching math to second-graders, she finds a ready audience. But the difficult and wonderful facts of life keep intruding. She finds herself drawn to the new science teacher, who has an unnerving way of seeing through her intricately built façade. Bender brilliantly directs her characters, giving them unexpected emotional depth and setting them in a calamitous world, both fancifully surreal and startlingly familiar.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Intelligent and engaging… [A] fanciful and original take on the quietly helter-skelter world that lies within.”–The New York Times

“Light as a zephyr and unique as a snowflake.”– The Washington Post

“An achingly idiosyncratic story…rendered…with eloquence, hilarity, and ominous precision.”–The Boston Globe

Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
In her "entertaining and fun" debut novel, Bender gives us the "exquisite" and "powerful" story of Mona Gray, a second-grade math teacher who has just turned twenty - a number that has profound significance for this young woman of bizarre compulsions. "Surreal and horrific." "Perceptive, sophisticated readers will be richly rewarded." Others found the protagonist "irritating."
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Clever, original and written with brio and eloquence, Bender's first novel after the praised short story collection The Girl with the Flammable Skirt may not appeal to every taste, but those who respond to its depressed, quirky heroine in her anguished search for safety from life's disasters will feel instant love. At 20, Mona Gray has deliberately made herself as colorless as her name. A decade ago, when her adored father fell victim to a mysterious illness that has left him drained of energy, hope and desire for human contact, Mona too retreated from life and deliberately stopped aspiring for success or happiness. Having turned her back on achievement as a track star and on sharing love, Mona still nourishes one source of happiness: the world of mathematics. Numbers, being clear and immutable, are Mona's salvation, as well as her job. She teaches arithmetic to second graders, having invented a zany curriculum in which her students find numbers everywhere in the environment. Kids love Mona, although she constantly and compulsively knocks on wood to keep disaster at bay. Everyone else seems unaware of her emotional isolation--but everyone else in this novel is also pretty strange. Mr. Jones, Mona's former high school math teacher, wears numbers around his neck to indicate his daily mood. Mona wears "an invisible sign of my own'' that denotes her fear and vulnerability. Then awkward, unsociable science teacher Michael Smith, who shares Mona's morbid imagination, breaks through her emotional reserve. Meanwhile, she has developed a particular fondness for seven-year-old Lisa Venus, who is actually experiencing the real terror of loss and abandonment that Mona fears: her mother is dying of cancer. In a satisfying denouement in which Bender brings the narrative full circle with astonishing dexterity, Mona discovers how to connect and live fully, and helps Lisa to navigate her own way through a frightening world. Readers may find the narrative too schematic and the characters exceptionally odd. On the other hand, Bender writes like an angel, with images that strike resonant chords, and her sly humor pervades every page. And those who are initially put off by the bizarre fairy tale that opens the narrative will be touched almost to tears when it comes full circle. Author tour. July FYI: Bender is the sister of Karen Bender, author of Like Normal People Forecasts, Feb. 21. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Nineteen. That's how old Mona Gray is when she's offered a job as a second-grade math teacher in her small hometown. Fifty-one. Panicked Mona is convinced that this number, found on her parents' property, foretells her 50-year-old father's death on his next birthday. Seven. This is the shape of the ax Mona hangs within reach of the children in her classroom. Enter the charming, unnerving world of Bender's functionally damaged heroine. Ruled by her obsession with the meaning and comfort of numbers and her uncontrollable need to knock on wood, Mona takes her students on a mathematical adventure into their own hearts while trying to abandon her own by quitting the things she loves most (e.g., running, music). Mona's children are exquisitely rendered in their razor-sharp honesty, their unfiltered willingness to accept Mona and her weird ways, and their vulnerability, which leads relentlessly to tragedy. Filled with terrific wit and lovely helpings of life's tougher truths, Bender's fairy tale fulfills the promise of her highly regarded collection of short stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/00.]--Beth E. Anderson, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Carmen Scheidel
Bender's gifts go beyond a wicked sense of humor. Stylistically, her prose is spare and evocative. She is masterful at depicting the awkwardness of male-female romance...An Invisible Sign... shows Beder's capacity for devloping original characters within an appealingly stanted version of the modern world.
Time Out New York
Verity Ludgate-Fraser
Dark themes related with empathy, quirky wit, and unmistakable talent constitute the paradoxical first novel of Aimee Bender, already noted for her skill in short-story telling...displaying the considerable gifts of a natural writer, Bender constantly draws us into Mona' distressed world with surprising humor and dazzling, original description...
The Christian Science Monitor
Bliss Broyard
A subtle sense of equilibrium is required to prevent this world from being little else than odd, and to allow the emergence of universal truths that stand in welcome relief. Luckily, Bender has such a sense: she employs the most exacting of logics, mathematics, to add a thematic cohesiveness to her novel, and one of the most universal of human emotions, the fear of losing someone you love, to give the book emotional weight...The freshness and lucidity of her prose suggest a novelist who knows her own voice. ...An Invisible Sign of My Own has much to recommend it....
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Bender's first novel, following a successful collection of stories (The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, 1998), is exasperating and charming in about equal measure. Narrator Mona Gray becomes a math teacher at age 20. Her life is a constellation of numbers, worries, and activities abandoned. She finds a riff in every utterance, a digression in every observation, and her creator indulges every one. Especially in Part One, story development jerks and sputters; some of the asides, like drum solos, roll out of control into tedium. One reason the jamming doesn't work is that the narrative voice is a shopworn compendium of self-consciously pomo gags and gimmicks: asynchronous dialogue, deadpan presentation, incongruous details, looping compound sentences followed by staccato bursts of fragments. Mona would be a more effective storyteller if she simply trusted her tale. When the story finally emerges from the overlush undergrowth, it features moments of real charm and poignancy. We meet the science teacher, a disarmingly self-assured young eccentric who encourages his students to act out symptoms of diseases; Lisa Venus, a second-grader tormented by her mother's cancer; and Mona herself, bemused and befuddled by her mysterious life. As her father succumbs to an unnamed, slowly debilitating disease, Mona retreats into a protective cocoon of numbers and signs that neither she nor anyone else can factor. When the science teacher's arrival offers both love and a threat to Mona's affectless retreat, then numbers metaphor shifts from cute and quirky to emotionally expressive, and the prose lifts from riff to song. Sometimes this young author's tale of young people, chronicledby ayoung narrator, just feels young. Sometimes it is exuberantly, heartbreakingly youthful.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385492249
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/17/2001
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 361,864
  • Product dimensions: 5.13 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.52 (d)

Meet the Author

Aimee Bender lives in Los Angeles. Her stories have appeared in Granta, GQ, Story, Harper's, The Antioch Review, and several other publications. She is the author of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt.
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Read an Excerpt

1

On my twentieth birthday, I bought myself an ax.

This was the best gift I got in a decade. Before I saw it, shining on the wall of the hardware store like a lover made from steel and wood, I'd given up completely on the birthday celebration.

On my nineteenth, my mother had kicked me out of the house.

On my eighteenth, I had a party of two people, and after an hour, both claimed allergies, and went home, sneezing.

On my seventeenth, I made myself a chocolate cake, but since I didn't really want to eat it, stirred bug poison in with the mix. It rose beautifully, the best ever, and when I took it out of the oven, a perfect brown dome, I just circled the pan for a few hours, breathing in that warm buttery air. Some ants ate the crumbs on the counter and died.

On my sixteenth, my aunt sent me a beautiful scarlet silk dress, which smelled and felt as delicate as the inside of a wrist. Stroking it in my lap, I sifted through the phone book, finally picking out the name of a woman who lived at an address with 16s in it. Then I mailed the dress to her. Red is not my color.

On my fifteenth, fourteenth, thirteenth, twelfth, and eleventh birthdays, my mother and I went shopping, and each year, by the end, one of us was in tears of frustration because I didn't like anything, and I said I really didn't want anything, except, maybe, a new math workbook. You had to send away for those. They came from a big number barn in the South. My mother shook her head; she refused, flat-out, to buy me math supplies for my birthday, so finally we just put the money in the bank instead.

The year of my tenth birthday was when my father got sick, and that's when I started to quit.

I'd always loved the sound of pianos, so I signed up for lessons and took them for six weeks, and at the end of six weeks we had a recital. I wore a dress and played a minuet and my two hands were doing two different things at the same time and when it was over I drank juice and got hugged and the melody crooned inside my head. I walked my piano teacher to her car, and she smiled at me, proud. The sky clamped down. I lowered my voice: Listen, I said, urgent. You are never, ever to set foot near this house again.

Her eyebrows pulled in, puzzled. Mona? she asked. What?

Thanks, I said. But this is the end of the line.

I told my mother it was too bad, wasn't it, that the one piano teacher was leaving our small town of no opportunity to become a rock star in the big city. Her eyes widened and she picked up the phone and my heart started pounding, but to my huge relief the piano teacher's machine picked up and my mother's message was vague, something like: Good luck and wow! and we wish you all the best.

Three weeks later, they ran into each other at the market. What they talked about, I have no idea.

I took dance class ten times, and on the afternoon of my first leap, donated my ballet shoes to charity. I had one boyfriend and within two months had hardened into a statue in bed. I ran track like a shooting star and shot myself straight out of orbit.

I quit dessert to see if I could do it--of course I could; I quit breathing one evening until my lungs overruled; I quit touching my skin, sleeping with both hands under the pillow. When no one was home, I tied ropes around the piano, so that it would take me thirty minutes with scissors to get back to that minuet. Then I hid all the scissors.

I did not stop knocking on wood, which I did all the time, as a way to seal each quit into roots and bark; listen: I tell the wood--look at what I'm doing here. Mark this down. Notice.

No piano. No dessert. No track. Nothing. I am in love with stopping.

It's a fine art, when you think about it. To quit well requires an intuitive sense of beauty; you have to feel the moment of turn, right when desire makes an appearance, here is the instant to be severed, whack, this is the moment where quitting is ripe as a peach turning sweet on the vine: snap, the cord is cracked, peach falls to the floor, black and silver with flies.

I had one boyfriend. He was distracted most of the time but we stood in his front doorway on a warm summer night and his lips moved over my skin like a string quartet and I could feel that peach ready to shake off the tree.

I quit going to the movies.

I quit my job at the local diner when the chef kept going on and on about what a good runner I'd been.

I quit egg salad.

I quit flipping through atlases.

I'd long quit the idea of living away from home when, on that nineteenth birthday, my mother threw me out of the house. She closed the town tourist office that she owned and ran, came home early, and said: Mona, happy birthday, my present to you is this. Putting her hands on my shoulders, she marched me out the front door, and stood me on the lawn.

I love you, she said, but you are too old to live here.

But I love it here, I said.

Her hair blew around in the air. You're lying, she said, and what's worse is that you don't even know it.

I wasn't sure if she was adamant or just a lot of talk until she rolled my bed into the front hallway. My father, confused, just sidled around the sloppy pillow and comforter, and for two nights, I dreamt in the space where wall nearly met wall. On the second morning, I woke, went to the bathroom, came back, and found the bed was gone again. And the front door was open. My mother stood in the doorway, her back to me, shoulders lifting and lowering from laughter at the sight of it, covers rumpled, standing in the middle of the front lawn like a cow.

So I'll sleep out there then, I said, heading toward it.

She caught me in her arms and held me close. I could feel the laughter, warm in her arms and her chest.

I went apartment hunting that Saturday. My mother was off at work, but before I left, my father called to me from the living room. He was feeling feverish, and lay on the couch, a washcloth sprawled on his forehead like the limp flag of a defeated country. Central heating, he advised. Do you need anything? I asked, but he shook his head. And Mona, he said, make sure you get a place with a toilet that flushes. I nodded. I brought him a glass of water before I left.

The whole idea of moving made me nervous, so I kept company with the number 19 as I walked around town by myself. 19: the third centered hexagonal number. A prime. The amount of time alive of my chin, my toes, my brain. I wandered through the tree-lined streets, to the edge of town where the gray ribbon of highway dressed the hills in the distance like a lumpy yellow gift. I did pass a few for rent signs, but the apartment I finally chose was only three blocks from my parents' house, sparkled with color, came with a toilet so powerful it could flush socks, and had an address that I liked: 9119.

The day I moved in, I placed my furniture pretty much where it had been at home. My bed, formerly grayish from the dimmed atmosphere of my parents' house, was already picking up its old pink tones. I hadn't seen it pink for nine years, and it looked like the color ads in newspapers that retain a steely quality of black-and-white even though they're newly splotched with reds and blues.

I called my mother when the phone was hooked up.

I'm here, I said. What now?

She was eating something crunchy. Decorate, she told me. Have a party.

The blank walls loomed white and empty. I ran through the rooms and said my name in each one.

Mona, I told the kitchen.

Mona, I whispered into the hall closet.

When it hit eleven o'clock, I put myself into the bed I'd slept in my entire life, in a room I'd never slept in, ever, and switched off the lights. The shadows made moving dark spirits on the walls, and I reached over to the potted tree my mother had given me as a housewarming present, and knocked on the trunk. I knocked and knocked. I didn't knock just a few times, I knocked maybe fifty. One hundred knocks. More knocks. One hundred and fifty. More. I stopped and then something felt wrong, my stomach felt wrong, so I knocked some more.

The new place held its own around me, learning. This is me, I wanted to tell it. Hello. This is me protecting the world.

I knocked until midnight. I'd finish and then go back for more. This is how I imagine drugs are. You close in on the wood, pull in your breath, and you want to get it just right and your whole body is taut, breath held, tight with getting it just right and awaiting the release--ssss--which lasts about five seconds and when it's over it's not right again yet, more, you need to go back. Just one more time. Just one more time and I'll get it exactly right this time and be done for the rest of my life.

Once I was all settled in, and each drawer had a purpose, and the bathroom was well-stocked with toilet paper and window cleaner, I invited my mother over for lunch.

My father sent his apologies, but didn't come with her; he was feeling off again; this happened. I served turkey sandwiches using the same brands of mayonnaise, mustard, and bread that my mother bought. After we ate, she brought a bag of cherries from her purse, and asked if I wanted to initiate the apartment by spitting cherry pits out the window. I said no thanks. Years ago, we used to go into their backyard in summertime and perch on the grass and spit cherry pits as far as we could. My mother's spits were badly aimed and ricocheted off to the left; my father was the better spitter, but my learning curve was sharp and I watched him close as those reddish ovals went flying. After he got sick, I did some spitting by myself, which was not very fun, and spit with my mother, which was not very challenging, and once I got him to join me and for some reason he breathed in too quick and the pit went backward and got lodged in his throat. Cherry pits are small, and so it was just three or four seconds of that thick labyrinth breathing but enough to scare us both into shaking. I stopped popping whole cherries in my mouth and took to biting down to pit and eating around that. My father cut his food into tiny pieces.

Before she left 9119, my mother put those cherries, bright as blood cells, on the counter, took out a camera, and snapped some photos of the rooms to show my father later.

I had sex with that one boyfriend. Once. Twice. All at his place. His skin was a buoyant ship over mine, and he kissed silver into the back of my neck, and was fine with my insistence on having lights ON at all times. I like to see what's happening, I explained. Cool, he said, picking at his elbow. After the third time, when we were just starting to get the hang of it, I came home one morning to my new empty apartment; I checked my messages to see if anyone had died while I was out in the world having sex but no one had or at least it was unreported so I sat on the couch and kept a knock going on the side table when I thought of how his eyelashes made a simple black rim when he looked down.

The clock said noon so I went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator but the food inside looked too complicated and I peered into the cupboards but I didn't want turkey soup, or garbanzo beans, or tuna, and I wandered into the bathroom and without even really thinking about it unwrapped the spare package of soap that I kept in the cabinet beneath the sink.

I bought the same brand my mother did. A bright white bar, rocking on its back, friendly. I brought it to the living room couch, and held it for a while, smelling it, and there was a knife sitting on the side table from the previous day's apple, which seemed convenient, and after a few minutes of just holding and smelling, I picked up the knife, balanced the bar on the arm of the couch, sawed off a portion, set it sailing in my mouth, and bit down.

Slide! Slip! It careened around my tongue. Gave like chocolate under my teeth. I cut another piece. My mouth crammed with froth. Mmm. I cut again. My hand slipped. I steadied the knife, cut again.

I'd chewed half the bar before I realized that it tasted strange, that the feeling it left in my mouth was not right, that there was something about the swallowing part that was wrong. By then it was making me gag and I went to the bathroom where the mirror revealed lather gathered around lip corners in clusters. Sticking the remains of the bar in the shower, I gulped glass after glass of water, spitting up foam into the sink, and the rest of the day I thought very little of the boyfriend, and instead wandered the rooms, burping clean burps, evaluating how badly I felt: Should I just relax? Should I get my stomach pumped?

When I woke up the next morning, slightly dizzy but not

dead, I stumbled into the shower and stood in the spray: meek, naked, distant. I used the straight bitten end of the soap to clean myself, but before I put it back on its shelf, I took one mildly interested nibble. The smell slammed back through me. In an instant, my stomach heaved up and I crouched down, water sticking in my eyes, and threw up down the drain, all whiteness and foam, soap rushing in waves back through me.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 12 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 7, 2003

    Total Bender

    Fans of Aimee Bender's brand of magical, hilarious and poignant short stories will not be disappointed with this novel. Present are Bender's trademarks: obsessive characters, whimsical situations, witty dialogue, and so much symbolism that you don't know where to begin deciphering her messages. This novel tracks the life of Mona Gray, a young math teacher whose fear of intimacy is salved by her obsessive, compulsive love of numbers. Her mother is a travel agent who has never traveled, her father a man suffering from a mysterious, gray disease. Mona's second grade class is filled with odd, energetic and talkative tikes. You will encounter many bizarre images: a man who wears his mood around his neck; an arm encased in glass. This is a wondrous, fabulist novel that will conjur up strange yet beautiful images months after you've finished reading it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2000

    What a fresh, funny, crazy book!

    by Aimee Bender. I really enjoyed this book - even though it was very strange. This book does for numbers what Bee Season does for letters. A 20-yr-old math teacher is obsessed with numbers, and ...well, a whole lot of other things. She's very bizarre. I love reading fresh books with fresh characters. It was enjoyable in an odd sort of way. Of course, there is a little love story woven in.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2000

    A Visible Talent for All Of Us

    Cashing in on the promise of virtuousity on display in her fabulous debut story collection, THE GIRL IN THE FLAMMABLE SKIRT, Ms. Bender has concocted a fable here that seeps into the reader's heart and spleen. She breaks your heart often and mirthfully in this compelling story of a young woman's attempt to 'settle accounts' within her emotionally circumscribed world. At the same time, Bender's prose sets off tiny concussion bombs of feeling in the reader's heart. She pulls you into her reality and makes you see the world through her poignant, painful, compassionate and downright hilarious prism.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2001

    Not just another chick book!

    This is a great story that happens to be about a woman, but is universal at the same time. I found the writing very poetic and moving and a fast, engaging read as well...and there are subtle insights about the ways of the heart that are important for guys as well as for women. Now that it's finally out in paperback, I'm finding that it makes a great gift.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2012

    Must read!

    Another beautifully written novel by Aimee Bender.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2012

    Dull and boring

    This book tries too hard to be unique and quirky. The book is absolutely boring and the sprinkling of explicit curse words throughout the story is not cool.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 29, 2001

    Vulgar and Uninspiring

    This book is beautifully written, yet I found it vulgar and uninspiring. The aurthor has a talent with words, however the genearl plot of the story is lacking. This book does not make you attached to any of the characters and her descriptions make it impossible to relate or really view the characters as anything but ficticious. I found it an easy read, but a particularly useless one.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted December 6, 2009

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    Posted October 27, 2008

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