Aimee Bender’s ‘The Color Master’ paints worlds of wonder
In Leonora Carrington’s 1938 short-story masterpiece “The Debutante,” a young woman wants to disobey her mother’s orders to go to a debutante ball, so she asks a hyena she has befriended to go in her place. The hyena fits into her ball gown but there is then the issue of the hyena’s face so — spoiler-to-end-all-spoilers alert — they decide the hyena will tear off the maid’s face and use it as her own.
Aimee Bender comes from a similar planet, black-lit brazen and unapologetically wackadoodle, sidesplitting and buck wild. Behold some of the plot lines in her new short-story collection, “The Color Master”: An apple-obsessed gang commits an assault with harrowing Garden-of-Eden undertones. Two sisters go to Malaysia to tend to “unpeeling” tigers who are bursting out of their stripes. A “revisionist but backwards” German man repeatedly turns himself in for war crimes in Nazi Germany that he never committed. A “color master” retires and leaves behind a task for his replacement: to make dresses the color of the sun and the moon. A human marries an ogre who accidentally devours their children.
Whether inspired by a painting from fantastical artist Amy Cutler or a 17th century Perrault fairy tale, Bender writes dynamically with the energy of someone just warming up — though this is her third collection of stories. It follows celebrated predecessors “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” (1998) and “Willful Creatures” (2005) as well as two novels — “An Invisible Sign of My Own” (2001) and “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” (2010).
But in “The Color Master,” Bender, like a figure skating champion who has seen gold many times, does not approach the ice trying to top herself. She knows she only needs to hold her record steady, gracefully executing her triple axles, giving her audience exactly what it wants: an Aimee Bender short-story collection.
For why would you need to do something altogether new if you were the one who created a new thing in the first place? Without Bender it’s hard to imagine having young lit-world-indispensables such as Karen Russell or Téa Obreht, for example. Of course Bender herself comes from marvelous roots; she’s the literary love child you’d be left with if Carrington, Clarice Lispector, Donald Barthelme and George Saunders had a foursome.
Although Bender is more of a conceptual stylist than a syntactical one, the collection showcases moments of trapeze-like linguistic dexterity. Only occasionally does verbal whimsy get tangled in its own goo, resulting in awkward phrases — in “Appleless,” for instance, the ham-fisted descriptor “loaves of hair” wipes out the lyricism of the descriptions that came before.
But most of the time the writing more than lives up to the ideas. In “Red Ribbons,” she describes her protagonist’s love affair with her own transgressions: “her whole body filled with a sparkling panic, painful and visceral as poison champagne.” In “Lemonade,” the teenspeak of her Beverly Center-bound protagonist lets the reader ignore the plot-famished premise and still crave a novel’s worth of the hyper-real voice: “Like she’s moving her torso but her feet don’t move, and then sometimes she’ll take one step and it feels like a thesis statement. Like it is a topic sentence above her butt.”
In “Bad Return” she similarly nails the droll deadpan of a college student recalling her poet lover: “It took me until senior year to find a poet who actually wrote poetry, and he took off my clothes very gently and spent nearly an hour on my neck and back, and when we were done and I felt all the waiting had been worth it, he explained that part of his education as a poet was to meet as many women as possible, and so this was now to be goodbye. He suggested I pretend he was going off to war on a boat.”
Which reminds me — while Aimee Bender has been tagged a “magical realist” and “postmodern writer,” she has never been given nearly enough credit as one of our finest humorists. The best parts of “The Color Master” are uproarious; perhaps she has a bit of Lorrie Moore in her blood too? In “Wordkeepers,” the neighbor’s friend corrects his technology-corroded diction “and when I wrote lol she made a very clear point to me about how I was silent and not laughing out loud, not at all. I said it was just an expression, and that I was laughing out loud inside my own mind” — and, oh, how we too lol.
Though it’s easy to tag her with the dreaded q-word — quirky — Bender’s work has never been the stuff of manic pixie dream-girl lit. Her fairy tales are dark and wicked, not hipster-precious and faux old-timey. Her sorcery altogether avoids the saccharine, and the thrills and chills of this sometimes sexual, often horror-drenched collection are completely adult.
At a time when realism reigns supreme over the literary landscape, one can argue it is absolutely imperative that Aimee Bender be spotlighted for what she is: a vital MVP of modern letters, period. Fabulism never quite goes out of style, perhaps because it’s never in style in the first place. And what is “straight realism” today anyway? In our world of flash-and-trash insta-Internet-oddities and stranger-than-fiction social-media-bloopers, she will have surpassed the simple feat of inventiveness to own a most dazzlingly urgent relevancy.
Khakpour is the author of “Sons and Other Flammable Objects” and the forthcoming novel “The Last Illusion.”
The Color Master
Doubleday: 240 pp., $25.95
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