AIMEE BENDER’S IMAGINATION is as boundless as ever in The Color Master, her latest and best collection — 15 stories stamped with the energetic strangeness that has become her trademark. An ogre’s wife wandering the countryside grief-stricken for the children her husband accidentally ate. Malaysian tigers splitting at the stripes that only a seamstress with supernatural focus can mend. And in “ The Fake Nazi,” a “backwards revisionist” demanding that he be punished for the heinous crimes he never committed.
The whimsicality gives the book a certain curb-appeal, but Bender’s whimsy has a back to it. Mining the unreal for metaphors, she finds an absurdist’s path into the very real world of collective guilt, loss, domestic distress, and love.
Surrealism can also provide the opportunity to go darker than one can in realist fiction. The book’s first story, “Appleless,” is a zippy parable that contains what can only be called literature’s goofiest gang rape. Grim, yes, but the buoyant tone and the insistent improbability lightens the emotional load, provides some kind of balance. Balance is important to Bender. Her characters have a tide-like pull on each other, and power is always shifting hands. If one sister is focused, the other will be dizzy. If a husband is in love, his wife will inevitably be bored.
One of the biggest challenges of fabulist writing — at least fabulist writing that aspires to the kind of ontological and ethical complexity of Bender’s work — is getting the reader to ask the right questions. When she tells you that a sleepless woman would open the door to greet the mailman who handed her “a basket of seawater, dripping, with stamps floating wetly on top” you’re too caught up in the beauty of the image not to believe her. You buy it, at first glance, simply because it’s so well written. But by definition, fairy tales are built on a metaphorical truth that operates in place of a literal truth, and since the metaphor is the plot, we need to ask why — why seawater? Why the postman? What is the vehicle and what the tenor? How is our reality refracted in this reality? The demand the fairy tale makes is not just that we look more closely at the ordinary, see it from a new and unexpected angle, but that we confront the archetypes we live by. The question we are forced to ask, forced by Bender’s knack for original metaphor by her A.M. Homes–like directness, by her ability to make us believe the unbelievable, is why we believe at all.
One of the book’s best is “Americca,” a story about a family who falls victim to a series of “backwards robberies.” Meaning that they return home from the movies one night to discover that things have been added to their home rather than taken out of it.
From the extra toothpaste in the bathroom to the cans of exotic soup in the cupboard, items are appearing as if from nowhere. The effect is disturbing and Lisa, our 10-year-old narrator, describes her horror upon discovering that her favorite octopus cap has been doubled.
I had two now. One, two. They were both exactly the same, but I kept saying right hand, right hand, in my head, so I’d remember which one I’d bought, because that was the one I wanted. I didn’t want another octopus cap. It was about this particular right-hand octopus cap; that was the one I had fallen in love with. Somehow it made me feel so sad, to have two. So sad I thought I couldn’t stand it.
The gain actually triggers a sense of loss, and as the unwanted gifts pile up, the characters struggle with growing, claustrophobic dread. There are other more internal concerns at play here. Mom is wayward and worn out, Dad is between jobs, Grandma is senile and probably dying. And older sister, Hannah, is boy-crazed and distracted.
The connection between the family’s emotional distress and the gifts may feel like an untidy one. But we know by the way Bender ping pongs between them that one is somehow feeding the other. And slowly, intuitively we begin to ask ourselves the right questions: What does it means to be gifted more of what you already have? What happens when you are being given only the things you don’t really need?
Bender is a genius for mapping the inner lives of her characters in surprising ways. Throughout this book, her sentences sparkle with an emotional off-handedness that can sneak up on you and break your heart. In “The Red Ribbon” a disaffected housewife recounts the many meals she has not enjoyed.
Janet thought of all the chicken dishes she had not sent back even though they were either half-raw or not what she had ordered. Chicken Kiev instead of chicken Marsala, chicken with mushrooms instead of chicken a la king: her body was made up of the wrong chickens.
The wrong chickens! Again, the metaphor is king, even when the metaphor is dependent on a botched order. And then there are passages that are both metaphor and, maybe, not:
I once thought if I traveled in France I would have a different brain, the brain of a girl who travels in France. I saw myself, skipping through meadows in a yellow-and-blue print dress. But even with the old building, with the bright bready smells, with the painted French sunlight, it was still my same brain in there, chomping as usual, just fed this time by baguettes and Brie.
Bender, a writer’s writer, makes us feel the profundity of such ordinary sentiments, even while she makes us feel the ordinariness of the most astonishing occurrences. Strange things happen in these stories. Unimaginable things. Yet you can see the wisp of human experience sticking out of them like hair under a hat. And the weirder things get, the closer you feel you are to the edge of something oddly familiar, that reflection in the mirror you almost recognize.