Soundtrack for this post: Pretty Little Head, Eliza Rickman
Published in 2000, An Invisible Sign of my Own is Aimee Bender’s first novel-length work. The story opens with a fairy tale which serves a controlling metaphor. In a town where nobody dies, the king orders each family to sacrifice one of its members in order to control the population. One family refuses. Instead, each member agrees to amputate a part of their body—a nose, an arm, a leg. However, the resulting change in the townspeople’s attitudes towards them drives the family out of town anyway. “That’s the story my father told me at bedtime on my tenth birthday.” the narrator, Mona, explains.
That same year, Mona’s father fell ill with a serious, but unnamed affliction. After that, she “started to quit,” pulling back from anything fun, interesting, or risky, or at which she excelled–piano, dance, dessert, movies, track, jobs, boyfriends. Like the family in the story, she made the decision to sacrifice parts of herself. Around the same age, she also developed a compulsive need to “knock on wood,” to wash herself, to eat soap–compulsions that help Mona to calm herself in moments of stress and anxiety.
The one thing Mona “loved but never quit…was math.” Her special relationship with numbers enables her to see each figure as multidimensional, fully formed, and deeply meaningful. Other residents of Mona’s slightly surreal hometown appear to share her fascination. A local man has a business making numbers for the addresses in town. Her former math teacher and neighbor wears small wax number signifying his state of mind beneath his clothes–an act of self-assertion that inspires Mona’s desire for her own “invisible sign.” The shapes and essences of numbers permeate the text: square roots, Pythagorean philosophy, and the way everyday objects seem to hold numbers within.
At nineteen, Mona is deeply pained by her father’s illness, trapped in rigid inertia, hemming in and controlling herself with a range of OCD-like coping mechanisms. Then, the principal of her former elementary school invites Mona to become the new math teacher. Through she accepts the position reluctantly, in interacting with her students Mona finds a new kind of satisfaction. For the first time she can share her appreciation for numbers with a receptive, even enthusiastic audience. She feels a particular kinship with her second graders, especially Lisa Venus, whose mother suffers from a terminal illness. Through her work she also meets Benjamin Smith, the new science teacher, with whom she begins a tentative relationship.
Mona’s internal struggle between rejoining the rest of the world and maintaining her distance at the cost of pleasure and human connection lies at the heart of An Invisible Sign. In one climatic moment, Bender splices fragments of Mona’s abandoned track career into a sex scene, driving this point home in no uncertain terms. In women’s fiction, TV and movies, we’re more used to seeing this particular story played out through an eating disorder–but it remains familiar when recast as a sibling mental illness, also related to control and self-determination.
Benders prose is–as always–dynamic, surprising, and beautiful, with the casual brutality of a fable, and a very high quirk factor. The Washington Post quote on the back of the paperback edition calls An Invisible Sign “unique as a snowflake.” Perhaps eighteen years ago this compliment may not have carried the backhanded sting it does today. It’s a simile that nevertheless holds true in its best and worst connotations. I was getting pretty sick of Mona’s eccentric struggles when a truly fantastic extended classroom scene redeemed the book for me.
I was utterly charmed by Aimee Bender’s debut short story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998). I heard the author read the first selection, “The Rememberer,” about a woman whose lover de-evolves into a sea turtle over the course of maybe two pages, one night at San Francisco’s Makeout Room. I bought a copy on the spot. Bender’s selective unreality, with the rule-bound fanaticism of an old-world fairy tale is endlessly appealing in short form. In her longer works however, that magical quality can pall–something I hadn’t yet realized when I picked up this used copy of An Invisible Sign of my Own at Pegasus in Berkeley.