I first discovered Aimee Bender as a graduate student, inside a collection of contemporary short stories the Professor assigned for the course. “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” was the selected Aimee Bender story, from her collection of the same title. Immediately, I was captured by how different it was from anything else I had read. It was confusing, surreal, and just comical enough to make me question whether or not the disjointed images and scenarios were supposed to build toward some epiphany.
As I suspected, everyone else in the class hated it (Professor included). While I wanted to defend the story, I wasn’t quite sure how. I knew I loved it, but wasn’t completely sure I got it, or if “getting it” was even the point. All I knew for certain was I needed to devour more by this writer. And I did, although it took me a while. Nearly two years later, I finally got my hands on the collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, and found that the title story wasn’t even among my five favorites. Aimee Bender’s vision as a storyteller became clearest to me in stories like “Call My Name,” “The Rememberer,” “Fell This Girl,” “Quiet Please,” and “The Ring.”
The Color Master is Aimee Bender’s third short story collection, and fifth published book of fiction. To those familiar with the author, I would surmise my thoughts on the collection as this: Aimee Bender has definitely not softened. This collection proves to be at least as challenging (and I would argue probably more so) as The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. To those unfamiliar with Bender, I would say this: each of these stories is dreamlike, images weave in and out of one another, thematic threads start and stop at whim, and any reader faced with this collection is going to have to be OK with confusion. I’ll repeat this: If you are not OK with confusion, you will not like this collection. But if you allow yourself to read past confusion (and believe me, Bender’s delicate and precise prose is enough to keep a lover of language motivated), and have an interest in different approaches to storytelling, I highly recommend this collection.
But now I’m afraid I’ve endorsed The Color Master and Aimee Bender to the wrong reader entirely, so I must add this: the ideal Aimee Bender reader does not enjoy long stretches of seriousness. Bender’s stories have a definite sense of humor. One that is not all that concerned with being a “smart” sense of humor. This is what separates her from other writers we might associate with the surreal or experimental. Take for instance, the story “The Red Ribbon,” in which a husband once pays his wife for sex to satisfy a prostitution fantasy. After this, the wife decides she enjoys collecting payment for sex, and the couple discuss working this into their monthly budget at the dinner table.
Even the greatest short story collections contain a few gems the reader will hold most dear. For me, the gems of The Color Master are “Appleless,” “The Red Ribbon,” “Bad Return,” “The Color Master,” and “The Devourings.” In “Appleless” Aimee Bender sets the tone for the whole collection. It’s a brilliant, brief opener that is perhaps the most dreamlike of all Bender’s stories, in this collection or any that I’ve read. “The Red Ribbon” revisits a tale that spreads around all-girl summer camps, about the beautiful bride who forbids her new husband from untying the ribbon around her neck. “Bad Return” is like the great lost episode of The Twilight Zone. “The Color Master” is a story about becoming a master of detail, and Aimee Bender proves she is one with passages like this:“When you see a tomato, like me, you probably see a very nice red orb with a green stem, fresh and delectable. When she sees a tomato, she sees blues and browns, curves and indentations, shadow and light, and she could probably guess how many seeds are in a given tomato based on how heavy it feels in her hand.” “The Devourings” concludes the collection similar to how it begins, but more vivid in story, setting, and character. The cake that routinely changes itself to satisfy the desires of others is clearly antithetical to the rebellious girl in “Appleless.” To notice this, and notice the two fates as reflective of one another, is to see Aimee Bender at her very best.
If you are anything like me, you feel trepidation when approaching a book written in the midst of a writer’s career. Many writers put forth a feeble effort once they’ve proven themselves. This was my concern before I began The Color Master, but I’m thrilled I took the plunge. I can’t say this book is for everyone, or even 98% of everyone. But for that 2% that likes the surreal, can happily read through confusion, is interested in dream narrative, and aches for something totally unique: The Color Master is the reading experience you’ve been after.
pages: 222 Total FoA pages: 40, 856