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Aimee Bender is a critically-acclaimed novelist and short story author noted for her surrealist fiction. Her use of magic realism in her stories keeps alive a literary tradition stretching back over half a century. she has used her stories to explore both the hilarious and grotesque aspects of everyday life.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born on June 28, 1969, in Los Angeles, California, Aimee Bender was the youngest of three daughters. she grew up idolizing her older sisters and holding her psychologist father and choreographer mother in high regard. Bender, in an interview with pif magazine, said,
My dad, through psychiatry, is dealing with the unconscious… . and my mom is delving into her own unconscious to make up dances. … And I’m sort of the combo platter, in that psychiatry is so essentially verbal … and also I am like [my mother] in that it’s all about creating from this inexplicable mysterious place.
Bender’s first literary influence, encountered when Bender was a teenager, was Transformations, a book of comically twisted fairy tales by the poet Anne Sexton. As Bender noted, ”Only later, in rereading it, did I see how hugely it had influenced my own stuff,” said Bender in a 2006 interview with the Yalabusha Review.
After taking her undergraduate degree at the University of California, San Diego, Bender joined the master of fine arts in Creative Writing pro-gram at University of California, Irvine. There she studied with Judith Grossman and Geoffrey Wolff and met and befriended a classmate named Alice Sebold, who would also go on to enjoy her own literary success.
After graduating with her MFA, Bender began to get her stories published in such literary reviews as Three penny Review, Granta, and Story. In 1998, her previously published short stories were collected together into her first book, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. Chosen as a New York Times Notable Book for that year, it also spent several weeks on The Los Angeles Times bestseller list.
Bender followed up her success with a full-length novel in 2000, An Invisible Sign ofMy Own. This book earned praise, too, being selected by the Los Angeles Times as one ofthe Best Books of2000. It also continued Bender’s explorations into the realm ofmagical realism and surrealism, which she had begun in her short stories. The novel involves a young math teacher who, caring for her ailing father, retreats into a dreamlike world of numbers and formula. After her novel was published, Bender con tinued to write short stories, still in the magical-realism vein, which were put out in a second collection, Willful Creatures (2005). The book was nominated by the liter ary magazine The Believer as one of the best books of the year.
In addition to pursuing her writing career, Bender has taught creative writing at several universities. She currently teaches the subject at the University ofSouthern California. She has continued to publish short stories in such maga zines as GQ, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and the Paris Review, and has twice been awarded the Pushcart Prize.
Works in Literary Context
Bender’s stories employ well-worn themes. They teem with the cheerful anguish of family life, aging parents, teen alienation and the still-forming sexuality of young adulthood. In the story ”The Rememberer,” a young woman watches as her boyfriend regresses through evolution. ”I don’t know how it happened,” the narrator deadpans, ”only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month and now he’s a sea turtle.” But Bender ultimately resists heavy psychological symbolism.
In an interview with pif magazine, Bender outlined the themes she deals with in her fiction:
[the] desire for connection, isolation from others, burden of caretaking, the ways loss gets expressed, suppression of passion, acting out of desires in a painful way, self-mutilation, deformity as a way to show loss or change, the connectedness of every one, sex as an expression of loss, rage, obliteration, connection, or freedom, hmmmm, man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself—ha. … Hmmm. Kind of a weighty list. Plus I know I’m missing tons of them. But there’s a start.
Bender’s writing style is usually categorized as magical realism. This genre was first recognized as an emerging literary genre during the Latin American literary ”Boom” of the 1950s and 1960s. Magical realism refers to the practice of placing bizarre, surreal events in a realistic context, and treating the unrealistic events as real—those involved in the story rarely if ever seem to notice or comment upon the seemingly strange elements occurring around them. It is as if they are operating in an entirely different, internally consistent reality, much like the logic that defines dreams.
It is this blending of the surreal unconsciousness with the firm, internally logical conscious reality that, by forcing the reader/outsider to ”decode” the magical reality, allows magical realist authors like Bender to explore the condition of human psychology, perceptions, myth, sub conscious desires, and culture.
Works in Critical Context
”Once in a while, a writer comes along who makes you grateful for the very existence of language,” wrote Carol Lloyd in the San Francisco Chronicle. ”It’s not a gratitude sparked by awe-inspiring virtuosity, but one that issues from the infectious, if inexplicable, pleasure that radiates from the pages themselves.” An unnamed reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly commented that ”as Bender explores a spectrum of human relationships, her perfectly pitched, shapely writing blurs the lines between prose and poetry.” In The New York Times Book Review, Lisa Zeidner wrote that Bender’s stories ”are powered by voice— by the pleasure of the electric simile.” Writes Lloyd, ”even when Bender dances on the edge of goofier-than-thou poetry, these near-magical stories are more than whimsical field trips into the unconscious.”
Some reviewers did fault Bender’s debut collection, however, noting that while it was overall an impressive work, the author’s relative inexperience as a writer some-times showed. Margot Mifflin wrote, ”Some of Bender’s forays into magical realism feel like collegiate exercises,” and Lisa Zeidner of the New York Times Book Review agreed: ”The weakest [stories] juxtapose multiple plot lines—a standard creative-writing workshop ploy— without much more point than to showcase the skill of the juggler.” Both Mifflin’s and Zeidner’s overall reviews of the collection, however, were positive.
An Invisible Sign of My Own
After her precocious beginning with The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, critics were curious to see if Bender could sustain her surreal storytelling over the course of a full-length novel. Reviewing this work for Booklist, Michelle Kaske noted that the book is a ”wonderful . . . treatment of anxiety, depression, and compulsion.” Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Gina Nahai summarized the book in the following way: ”In the end, An Invisible Sign of My Own achieves what all good fiction strives for: It gives a face to human suffering but sprinkles it with just enough magic to make reality tolerable.”
- ”Bender, Aimee.” Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Vol. 153. Detroit: Gale, 2007.
- ”The Rememberer.” Short Stories for Students. Ed. Ira Mark Milne. Vol. 25. Detroit: Gale, 2007.
- Burkhardt, Joanna M. ”The Girl in the Flammable Skirt.” Library Journal (June 15,1998): 109. Anderson, Beth E. ”An Invisible Sign of My Own.” Library Journal (May 15, 2000): 123.
- Aimee Bender’s Website. ”Biography.” Retrieved September 22, 2008, from http://www.flammable skirt.com/biography.html.
- Boudinot, Ryan. Amy [sic] Bender. Retrieved September 22, 2008, from http://www.pifmagazine.com/SID/498/.
- ”An Interview with Aimee Bender.” Retrieved September 22, 2008, from http://hobartpulp.com/ interviews/bender.html.
- Kelby, N. M. A Plastic Buddha. Retrieved September 22, 2008, from http://webdelsol.com/Literary_ Dialogues/interview-wds-bender.htm.
- Welch, Dave. Aimee Bender’s Cabinet of Wonder. Retrieved September 22, 2008, from http:// www.powells.com/interviews/bender.html.
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