Weekly Wire
NewCityNet "Sign" Language

By Shelly Ridenour

AUGUST 14, 2000: 

An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender, (Doubleday), $22.95, 242 pages

I cannot tell you how many times a month a press release comes across my desk touting a just-released book with lines like "one of the freshest and most original voices in American fiction. I cannot tell you how many times this is fluff comparable to cheap cotton candy. But what to my rolling eyes has appeared but a book that lives up to every bit of that promise.

Aimee Bender is, indeed, in possession of a writing voice that is so fresh as to be like no other. Her debut novel, "An Invisible Sign of My Own" is an engaging little oddball tale, breathtaking in its simple, quirky beauty; this is the rare book that commands you re-read a paragraph not for greater understanding but out of marvel.

"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." Paragraphs like this just pop up, seemingly random, in the narrative thoughts of Mona Gray, a 20-year-old elementary school math teacher. In addition to her obsessive-compulsive need to knock on wood, Mona is a self-proclaimed quitter: she quit that boyfriend, just like she quit high-school track and egg salad and going to the movies and flipping through atlases. These fine threads of personality come together to weave a portrait of a woman who is not as odd as she sees herself.

Bender has a knack for creating characters who seem so wacky at first glance--like the math teacher-turned-hardware store owner who wears his emotions on his sleeve, or, more precisely, around his neck, in the form of homemade wax numerals gauging his happiness. But, as the story unfolds like carefully disassembled origami, we come to realize there is a reason for every seemingly unsane action, from the second-grader who brings carcinogenic theme lunches (bologna and margarine and a saccharin drink and cigarettes) to Mona's own superstitious respect for numbers. See, math is the one thing Mona never quit, and the book's fascination with numbers is a dizzying guilty pleasure.

And bless Aimee Bender for the calm, small and matter-of-fact way for which she presents all these truths, never overreaching for clunky or flowery symbolism. "Back at the elevator, I pressed the Down arrow and a man in a suit waited with me, and when it came we both got in and I pressed L and he pressed 6. We dropped three easy levels and then the doors opened to the sixth floor. A huge sign faced the elevator that said CANCER WARD, in dignified type on a panel of brass. The man in the suit walked off, into. I stood and looked at that brass panel. Elevator doors are polite. They do not rush you. They accommodate last-minute decisions." Have you heard a more original voice lately?


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