Willful Creatures

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Can U Tell Me? Short Stories as Pop Songs


Early summer 2007, I spent all my non-working hours sitting next to the warm, greasy swimming pool of my apartment complex listening to Hanson’s “MMMBop” on repeat through a crummy pair of earbuds. I was, admittedly, feeling a bit lost at this point in my life, so there was something comforting in recognizing and fulfilling my part in such a straightforward symbiotic relationship: my job was to listen to “MMMBop,” and the job of “MMMBop” was to make me want to keep listening. As long as I kept hitting repeat, something in the world was working exactly how it was supposed to.

Around this same time, I was getting serious about writing fiction, and one day a question occurred to me: Is there a literary equivalent of pop music? Is it even possible to reproduce that catchiness, that playfulness, that danceability with the written word?

I certainly want it to be possible, so I’ve been kicking the question around ever since. It’s a tough one to answer, though. One big challenge lies in defining pop music, a genre that encompasses everything from “We Belong Together” to “The Twist” to “Shake It Off.”

Most broadly, pop music is music that’s popular. Based on that definition, the answer to my question is obvious: The literary equivalent of pop music is literature that’s popular. Pull up The New York Times bestseller list, see what’s at the top, and there you go — nice and easy. But to paraphrase the great Tina Turner, we’re not going to do this nice and easy. We’re going to do this nice and rough — to understand how pop music works, we’re going to look at an explanation of how popular movies work according to Roberto Bolaño’s “The Return,” a short story which itself might be the literary equivalent of a pop song.

At the beginning of Bolaño’s story, the unnamed narrator dies — “death caught up with me in a Paris disco at four in the morning” — and then, as a ghost, follows his corpse around to observe its postmortem fate. In describing the experience of dying, the narrator invokes the 1990 Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze movie Ghost. When he saw the movie in theatres, the narrator dismissed it as kitsch, especially the scene where Patrick Swayze’s character dies and “his soul comes out of his body and stares at it in astonishment. Well, apart from the special effects, I thought it was idiotic. A typical Hollywood cop-out, inane and unbelievable.” However, much to the narrator’s chagrin, on dying he finds himself, a disembodied soul, staring down at his own corpse: “I was stunned. First, because I had died, which always comes as a surprise, except, I guess, in some cases of suicide, and then because I was unwillingly acting out one of the worst scenes of Ghost.” The movie’s depiction of dying may be completely inane, but it also turns out to be true.

Though initially dismayed that such a meaningful moment in his own life so closely resembles the death scene from Ghost, the narrator’s opinion of the movie improves after some consideration. Though he prided himself in life on being a man of refined taste, he concedes after his death that “there is sometimes more to American naiveté than meets the eye; it can hide something that we Europeans can’t or don’t want to understand.” The narrator discovers that in Ghost, the truth about death is hiding in plain sight, obscured not by layers of symbolism or ambiguity, but by its own kitschiness. Because it resembles so many other lazy Hollywood depictions of death, it might seem meaningless, but banality and truth are not mutually exclusive, an idea that’s key to understanding pop songs.

Take the lyrics of “MMMBop,” which manage to be completely bland, and at the same time, deeply preoccupied with some heavy existential ideas. About a third of the way through the song, the brothers put forth the following proposition: “Plant a seed, plant a flower, plant a rose / You can plant any one of those / Keep planting to find out which one grows / It’s a secret no one knows.” That last line signals a preoccupation with the unknowability of the future that only increases as the song continues, reaching an apex with the final insistent refrain: “Can u tell me? oh / No you can’t ‘cause you don’t know / Can you tell me? / You say you can but you don’t know / Say you can but you don’t know.” Amid all the ba duba dops, then, Hanson is wrestling with a relentlessly ambiguous universe and a completely unknowable future. These are big ideas — truly — and I’m not cherry-picking lines, either. Take a look at the full lyrics of the song, and the existential preoccupations become even more apparent. Ghost-like, Hanson’s song obscures its insights by stating them so unremarkably. The larger insights are also obscured by the fact that the lyrics are nearly unintelligible as sung, and while that may be completely appropriate to their larger thematic interest in the incoherent, it does mean that they lose their frightened edge for listeners and fail to create contrast with the song’s sunny melodies.

A better and more recent example of a pop song grappling with big ideas that we “can’t or don’t want to understand” is Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.” Where “MMMBop” focuses on unknowability, “Call Me Maybe” explores the frighteningly compulsive nature of infatuation. Again, there’s an occasional triteness to the lyrics, especially in the verses, that belies its weighty preoccupations. A line like “I trade my soul for a kiss” may be hackneyed enough to blow by unnoticed, but it’s still describing a willingness to make a Faustian bargain. Adding to the singer’s angst is her self-awareness that the infatuation in question is just that — an unexpected (“I wasn’t looking for this”), unshakeable (“but now you’re in my way”) obsession with a near stranger (“Hey I just met you”). The singer finds herself in thrall to forces beyond her control, but what delights and disturbs me most about “Call Me Maybe” is the way it replicates that same compulsion in its listeners, just as Ghost’s depiction of dying is mirrored in the narrator’s own death.

In a 2013 interview with Mashable, Taylor Hanson (of Hanson) lays out his criteria for a great pop song: “Does it get in your head? Do you sing it over and over? Do you wanna sing it?” That last question gets at one of the more unsettling qualities of a catchy pop song, that sometimes, even if we don’t want to, we might find ourselves not only replaying a song again and again in our minds, but actually singing it out loud and maybe even dancing. It’s such a commonplace occurrence that it’s easy to think nothing of it, but really there’s a kind of possession taking place, a mysterious outside force commandeering our minds and compelling us to use our bodies (to sing or to dance) in ways that are not always voluntary. A catchy song is not unlike that creepy fungus that hijacks the brains of ants and compels them to climb higher and higher and higher so the fungus can sprout from the ant’s head and spread its spores.

And that compulsion brings us back to “The Return,” where the narrator’s dismay arises in large part from the fact that he’s “unwillingly acting out one of the worst scenes of Ghost” (my italics). He’s become an active participant in a piece of art which he disapproves of, and it’s happening against his will. At this point, though, the effects of pop music diverge from the dynamic in Bolaño’s story. In “The Return,” there’s no indication that the narrator’s death resembles that scene in Ghost because he saw the movie; there’s no causality there. Instead, the movie is accurately (and probably accidentally) describing a phenomenon that the movie itself has no direct effect on.

In contrast, a song like “Call Me Maybe” not only describes the frighteningly compulsive experience of infatuation (just as Ghost depicts the experience of death), it also generates a new compulsion in its listeners, a compulsion to sing along and dance along and, at the height of the song’s popularity a few years ago, to produce lip-sync tribute videos. This last phenomenon is pop music possession at its most explicit. If you haven’t seen any of these videos, here’s how they work: A group of people, sometimes famous, sometimes not, films themselves lip-syncing to Jepson’s song, and then they post their video on YouTube. These videos are then viewed (tens of millions of times, in some cases) by people who, in turn, create lip-sync videos of their own, and so it goes, on and on and on.

Unlike the narrator of “The Return,” these lip-syncers go out of their way to channel a piece of popular art through their own bodies; there’s a palpable eagerness there to be a conduit for the song. This is where Taylor Hanson’s third criteria is illuminating — plenty of pop songs might get stuck in your head, but a great pop song is one you want to get stuck in your head. It’s a form of voluntary possession in which the makers of these tribute videos capture — and create — a very public form of ecstatic experience, of being swept by something big and incomprehensible.

Because there is something big and incomprehensible about songs like “MMMBop” and “Call Me Maybe.” I just checked and, three years after its release, the official music video for “Call Me Maybe” has over half a billion views on YouTube. Granted, it’s a plenty catchy song that holds up on repeat listens, but who can fully account for that degree of widespread enthusiasm? There’s something majestic and frightening in the scope of its popularity which for me pushes “Call Me Maybe” into the territory of the sublime. To borrow 18th-century essayist Joseph Addison’s description of the Alps, Jepson’s song, and others like it, “fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror.” That seemingly irreconcilable tension — agreeability and horror — is essential to great pop music.

This is why, for instance, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the greatest pop album of all time. Jackson and producer Quincy Jones astutely foreground that tension between agreeability and horror throughout, creating music and lyrics (and music videos) that are catchy and danceable, and at the same time, preoccupied with discomfort. In “Billie Jean,” the tension arises from a baby’s disputed paternity. In “Beat It,” it’s knife fights. In “Thriller,” it’s werewolves. And start to finish, the album is compulsively listenable. Even the train wreck of “The Girl is Mine” (the doggone girl is mine — what?) is hard to turn away from.

So, to return to our initial question — if these are great pop songs, then what are their literary equivalents? (I’m going to exclude poetry at the outset as being too close to music to be an equivalent.) We’ve already looked at some key concerns and characteristics of pop music — compulsion and tension, agreeability and horror, banality and truth. I’d also add that pop songs are short, usually under five minutes, so their literary equivalent needs to be short as well. For that reason I’m excluding novels. Short stories, though, can be read in one sitting.

And of course, great pop songs have great hooks, so their literary equivalent needs to be both attention-grabbing and memorable. For a perfect case in point, here are the first lines of “The Return:” “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.” It’s a memorable opening — and premise — that in lesser hands might produce a story that coasts on shock value. Instead, Bolaño develops a complex and surprising relationship between the narrator’s ghost and (fictional) French fashion designer Jean-Claude Villeneuve.

Like “MMMBop” and “Call Me Maybe,” “The Return” capitalizes on a tension between the agreeable and the horrible. While certain elements of the story — death, necrophilia — might inspire unease or distaste in readers, other elements — the story’s humor, its compassion — make the story not just palatable, but pleasant. It’s a fun read that also grapples with overwhelming concepts like death, compulsion, sex, and loneliness.

For all its pop-musicality, though, “The Return” is not an especially well-known story, at least not yet. And while we have rejected popularity as the sole defining characteristic of pop music, it is an important element. For that reason, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” serves as a useful case study. Like “The Return,” it’s a story with a horrifying core — the random and ritualistic selection of a small-town resident for stoning — made agreeable by its engaging narrative elements — a stunning concision, a compelling sense of mystery. The story has also achieved the ubiquity of a “Hey Ya!” or an “Imagine.” Everyone reads this story in junior high, and with the possible exception of “The Most Dangerous Game,” no other 20th-century short story has insinuated itself so completely into the pop culture lexicon.

“The Lottery” also shares with “The Return” a counterfactual, high-concept premise that resists easy allegorizing. This play with realism correlates to another widespread characteristic of pop songs, the nonsense lyric. The chorus of “MMMBop” is fun to sing along with and it also means nothing, at least in a conventional sense. What’s more, you’re not going to find a lot of people puzzling over what mmmbop ba duba dop actually signifies, because signification isn’t the point.

No story exemplifies this dynamic better than Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” in which a winged old man shows up outside the house of a poor couple where he’s caged and examined until, at the end of the story, he flies away. The story’s characters, as well as its readers, find themselves asking questions that listeners of “MMMBop” don’t bother with — what does this nonsensical figure mean? But the story’s refusal to yield any clues as to the old man’s provenance or nature makes a strong case that we should read the story the same way we listen to the chorus of “MMMBop.” It matters less what the old man means, and more how his enigmatic presence fits within and affects the rest of the narrative.

Of course, some readers will persist in being frustrated by “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” just as many listeners are enraged by pop songs like “MMMBop” or “Call Me Maybe.” I think that’s true, actually, of all three stories I’ve mentioned, that they’re just as likely to inspire consternation as admiration.

Part of the reason for that is their ability to get under a reader’s skin. You may hate “The Lottery,” but if you’ve read it, you’re likely to remember it for a very long time. Similarly, people who hate “MMMBop” don’t hate it because it’s forgettable, they hate it because they can’t get it out of their head. Even that hatred, though, is a remarkable artistic feat. Love and hate are, after all, both forms of devotion, and the ability to inspire that devotion is, the more I think about it, the most essential characteristic of a truly great pop song.

When, in 2007, I fell in love with “MMMBop,” I felt an irresistible urge to share the song with others, to ask them to listen and to consider if maybe, like me, they’d dismissed it too readily when it first came out 10 years earlier. We’ve already discussed how that compulsion to share is a strange, overwhelming force, and it’s a compulsion I feel again now. As I’ve thought through the possible criteria for determining the literary equivalent of a pop song, I’ve thought of so many stories that fit the bill, stories that have gotten under my skin, stories that I have to share. Unable to resist that urge, I’ve put together a Thriller-sized playlist of nine pop-musical short stories:

1. “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson (from The Lottery and Other Stories)

2. “The Return,” by Roberto Bolaño (from The Return)

3. “Good Country People,” by Flannery O’Connor (from A Good Man is Hard to Find)

The names alone of the two main characters (Manley Pointer and Hulga) are worth the price of admission, and the story just gets better from there. Its jokey setup — a woman with a PhD in philosophy sets out to corrupt a naïve-seeming bible salesman — serves as a funny vehicle for a troubling exploration of condescension and pain.

4. “UFO in Kushiro,” by Haruki Murakami (from After the Quake)

After the Kobe earthquake of 1995, Komura’s wife leaves him, explaining in a note, “you are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air.” What follows has the feel of a verse/chorus/bridge song structure as seemingly disparate narrative elements — the accusing note, a package whose contents are unknown to Komura, an extended conversation with the sister of a colleague — trade back and forth until they all come together, more-or-less, at the end of the story.

5. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (from Collected Stories)

6. “The Cats in the Prison Recreation Hall,” by Lydia Davis (from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis)

A prison recreation hall is infested with cats and then the warden gets rid of them — that’s basically the whole story. But the simple premise yields an engaging pop-song-short two-page narrative about power, cruelty, and the passing of time.

7. “End of the Line,” by Aimee Bender (from Willful Creatures)

“The man went to a pet store to buy a little man to keep him company.”

Another killer hook, this time for a story that takes a whimsical premise and follows it to dark places. By the end, the reader is left with the troubling question of whether the big man subjects the little man to a series of cruel humiliations because he can’t see his pet’s humanity or because he can.

8. “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” by Steven Millhauser (from We Others: New and Selected Stories)

Nineteenth-century Austrian magician Eisenheim stages increasingly audacious illusions that captivate the public and trouble government officials. It’s not just the descriptions of the magic tricks that captivate, though. The narrative itself contains flourishes and reveals that, rather than feel cheap or contrived, organically grow out of the story’s interests in spectacle.

9. Dormitory, by Yoko Ogawa (from The Diving Pool)

Tiny mysteries accumulate in this story, creating a tone both haunting and precise. The narrative’s indelible physical details — a stained ceiling, omnipresent bees, rigorous five-item to-do lists — ground the reader in a distinctly tangible world, which makes the dread-filled, disorienting effect of the story’s conclusion all the more affecting.

Image Credit: Flickr/modomatic.

Childish Things: Aimee Bender’s The Color Master

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I’ve enjoyed Aimee Bender’s writing since 2005 when I picked up a hardcover of Willful Creatures, her second collection of short stories. I was fourteen at the time, and not a big reader. I read the books that were assigned in school, that’s the best and the worst I could say of it. But I read Bender’s book over and over again. I developed a rhythm to my reading, which soon bordered on ritualism; for the first time in my life it became imperative that I read the book in a certain place, at particular times of day. It seemed possible for some whiff of the environment that hovered around the book to enter it and slightly alter the stories contained in the chrysalis of its twin covers.

Each story in the collection incorporates an element that brazenly, nakedly does not fit. There’s the one about the man with keys for fingers, the son who is born with an anvil for a head, and the woman forced to choose between complete autonomy and raising a family of potatoes. These stories are quirky, creepy, even awkward and gimmicky in parts, the way a fairytale can be when one puts away childish things. The collection opens with the pared-down parable of ten men who go to the doctor and are each told that they have three weeks to live. In “Marzipan,” from Bender’s debut collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, a man wakes up with a hole in his stomach one week after his father dies; his wife soon gives birth to her own mother. Bender’s great gift to us all is her fierce unwillingness to give up her childishness. Instead, she grows into it, deepens it, allows it to become old and finicky.

This courage of stirring, strange, tireless creatures is still present in Bender’s most recent collection, The Color Master, but here their will to play has become somewhat more muted.

The first story in the collection, “Appleless” is the strongest — exquisite, crisp, and deeply unsettling at its core. In it, a woman who does not eat apples is gang raped in an orchard, consumed and enjoyed like a piece of fruit: “We find her in there, and she is so warm and so alive…She is weeping into our arms, she is crumpling down, and we are inside her clothes now, and our hands and mouths are everywhere.” Each story that Bender writes is voiced like a myth. Bender’s writing teaches us that every story is potentially familiar — as if it had been told for centuries and nurtured in many faithful mouths — so long as one tells it just so. For this purpose, she strips the story down to its mythic kernel. The characters have no names. The “we” who carry out the heinous act have apples, and they have their way with “the girl,” yet they are also described as “starving” before and after the act as they sit around eating apples all day. There is such a lack of explanation, of gaining anything, that the story manages to fuse two classic, tragic figures: the one who cannot enjoy what he has, and the one who has metamorphosed so that she cannot enjoy her own body. The entire story can be read in the time it takes to eat an apple.

The subterfuge of mistaken identity that structures “Appleless” (at a metonymic rather than narratological level) motivates every story in Bender’s new collection. Often, the characters write these mistakes into their own lives, impulsively, ecstatically, tragically. In “The Fake Nazi” a man confesses to the police that he was a Nazi, though he never was, out of some misshapen embodiment of collective guilt and grief. An “auburn-haired secretary” finds out about his story and becomes obsessed with discovering each of its moving parts. She feels that members of her generation, born after the Holocaust, unburdened (or burdened in different ways) by its memory, “formed their identities in the negative space instead.” This space is deprived of context, clues, even adequate language; those who inhabit it self-actualize by ratifying their status as “mistake” — the part that does not fit.

In “Faceless” a similar appeal to this negative space, so fitful and yearning in Bender’s earlier work, has degraded into a comforting binary. A young boy named William is diagnosed with “facial illiteracy.” Translation: He has trouble discerning facial expressions, and his mother is not OK with this. It is unclear whether this abnormality stems from a neurological disorder or a social one — his unwillingness to make snap judgments. Embedded in this identity crisis is a thinly veiled and fairly annoying solicitation of the reader to question what it means to be “literate,” to read more closely the world around them (perhaps the book they are gazing upon?)

Which leads me to the main problem I had with this book: too many of its stories are overwrought with anxiety over how to be a good reader and writer. And too often the result is that they fret themselves into a corner, with Bender at times opting for simple, sleepy language that does not dare begin to scale the heights of these actually worrisome questions. This is the risk anyone runs when telling stories with an epic sheen, that they will reflect the moralizing tropes of the ages.

The age that seems to pose the largest problem to Bender, who has the skill to write tenderly about ogres out of space and time, is our own. In “Wordkeepers,” a woman’s vocabulary starts getting away from her. Like so many flimsy, high-gloss magazine articles before her, she implicates technology, lodging a shallow, whiny complaint: “I can’t remember the words of things. The words for words. I have lost my words. What’s this from? Is it the Internet? Texting? E-mail?” No doubt, parts of language have become speedy and surgical to a fault — words are shoved into e-mails, shipped off to ad campaigns, squeezed into the sausage casing of 140 characters per thought. But Bender’s frustration overwhelms her in this story, and she loses her gleeful ability to discover more through play. “In some study, they say phones and computers are replacing our cerebral cortexes, externalizing our thoughts so that we do not need to think them,” Bender writes. But this is as far as she is willing to go; she externalizes the problem only to cower before it.

This story is wildly different from the tale that best manifests Bender’s anxiety over language in Willful Creatures called “Fruit and Words.” In it, a woman with a craving for mangos discovers a shack fifty miles outside of Vegas. There she finds mangos, and far more than she bargained for — shelves brimming with words, each made from the very thing they signify. “They were piled high on shelves, making big words and small words, crammed close together, letters overlapping,” Bender writes, “They were beautiful on their own and they were beautiful all together.” There is the ocean, piped through a twisting tube that spells “OCEAN”; the word “PEARL” seems, impossibly, carved from a single, opalescent slab of pearl.

The woman decides to buy a word. She picks out the very first word she noticed upon entering the store, “NUT”, made from seven kinds of nuts, as the shopkeeper proudly announces, including “garbanzo”:
“Isn’t garbanzo a bean?” I asked

She held it out to me. “I’ll give it to you for fourteen,” she said. “Two dollars a nut.”

There was a ten in my wallet between four ones and I lifted them all out…”
Later, while perusing the gaseous and emotive words, the narrator runs into a spot of trouble. She accidentally breaks the word “AIR,” and, waving her hand in a protective gesture to shield her from the shopkeeper’s rage, she also breaks “HOPE.” The narrator begins to suspect a scam (the “you break it, you buy it” store policy doesn’t help). There are far too many parts to comment upon in this complex, coruscating tale; so much fodder for another, more exhaustive essay.  But I will say this: There is an art to haggling over words.

Bender trades in language like a pro, but this time her hand is shaky, her questions more daunting. Hardly any characters escape the influence of her anxiety. Like the secretary from “The Fake Nazi” who proclaims, “One day you will open your mouth when it is imperative that you use it, and nothing will come out.” Or the opening line of her story “A State of Variance”: “On her fortieth birthday, the woman lost the ability to sleep for more than a single hour.” However, occasionally, there comes along a tyrannical worry, one worth listening to, with the force to launch one thousand brave retellings. For me, this epic scope lives in the line, “It’s unsettling to meet people who don’t eat apples.”

Writing Outside Realism: Aimee Bender’s Magical Power

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Several years ago I took a weekend workshop with Aimee Bender at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House. The class was called “Writing Outside Realism,” and it was an excellent reminder of why writing fiction is fun. (I don’t know about you, but I need a lot of reminding.) We invented opposites (What’s the opposite of a three-legged dog in a field? A mansion on fire. What’s the opposite of the Moonlight Sonata Prom, Chicago? Mobsterville, Long Island). We drew from a deck of optical illusion cards to create relationships between characters. Bender offered advice on writing non-realist fiction that isn’t a cop-out. No alarm clocks at the end of the story, waking readers up from the fictional dream, and no mini alarm clocks either, buzzing us out of bizarre moments. Also, no “they’re all cows stories,” by which she meant something like no cheap tricks. Writing stories with a conventional beginning, middle, and end bored her, she said. Her daily guide for how a story is coming along is to ask herself, Am I still interested in this?

I’m always interested in Bender-style fun, and so when I heard she had a new novel on the way, I asked for an advance copy. Like Eryn Loeb here at The Millions, I devoured The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and enjoyed its sweet, melancholy flavors. If I hadn’t read Bender’s superb story collections, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures, I would have felt satiated: a delightful, imaginative, affecting novel—an ample serving of literary entertainment. Because if reading Bender’s stories was like creeping downstairs in the middle of the night to eat all the leftover cake with my hands — that much better for the darkness, for the raw, guilty lust — this new novel is summer afternoon, garden party fare.

In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Rose discovers that she can taste her mother’s unhappiness in her ninth birthday cake. Sickened by this unfortunate magical power, Rose seeks out food from vending machines, from boxes and cans—food that tastes of the blandness of factories, not the pungency of human emotions. Rose’s family exudes quirkiness and harbors secrets; they are intriguing, idiosyncratic characters. But as we follow them through the novel, we become accustomed to their eccentricities. Their weirdness and loneliness come to seem less weird and less lonely.

Though Rose’s daily struggles to connect with her family and to eat a meal without ingesting the suffering of others are engaging, her story doesn’t feel urgent. Still, the tenderness of the language consistently enchants, and Bender skillfully captures the way that people in families, though they may all live in the same house, can be fundamentally mysterious to each other. About her brother, Rose wonders: “what he knew about the family; what he didn’t know. What family he lived in.” The height of intimacy between Rose and her dad is sitting on the couch together watching a medical drama on TV. The fantastical conceit of the book—Rose’s ability to taste people’s emotions in the food they’ve prepared—is easily translated as the dilemma of a perceptive kid among willfully oblivious adults. The kid feels smarter than the adults, and that’s kind of interesting, but it’s also disconcerting. Nevertheless, she grows up and finds ways to cope. Though the lemon cake tastes bitter to Rose, it’s still lemon cake.

Bender’s first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, does for numbers what The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake does for food. It invests them with emotional power, as sources of magic, obsession, and anxiety in a young woman’s life. Mona teaches math to elementary school students, and her innovative methods are part of the book’s unsettling fun. In her Numbers and Materials sessions, second graders bring number-shaped materials to class to practice subtraction. Danny, whose father lost an arm, brings in the arm (encased in glass) to represent a one. Lisa, whose mother is dying of cancer, presents an I.V. tube for a zero. Mona herself contributes an axe as a seven. Violence and disease lurk in this town, where the most notable site is the twelve-story hospital built entirely of blue glass. Despite the gloomy milieu, the overall tone here is whimsical. Bender’s inventive details entertain, and the voices of the characters are fresh and poignant, particularly those of the children, who could have been overly cute in the hands of a lesser writer. The novel captures the experience of a beginning teacher who can relate to her class because she’s childlike herself, in both appealing and crippling ways. She is strong-willed, imaginative, and alert to adult phoniness. She’s also afraid of adult desire (in the form of a cute science teacher who teaches about health by having kids act out the symptoms of various diseases) and terrified of what she doesn’t understand about her own parents.

The best part of the book—and here again I’ll betray my preference for Bender in her sharp, succinct mode—is the story that frames it. The Prologue gives us the tale of a kingdom where everyone lived forever. Then one day, because of overcrowding, the king orders everyone to sacrifice a family member. One family’s solution is to each sacrifice body parts—a leg, an arm, an ear, a foot, a head of hair, a nose—and so they live on, dismembered but together. The Prologue closes with Mona’s revelation that her father told her this story on her tenth birthday, setting off the feelings of alienation from family and self that plague her for the next ten years. At the end of the novel, Lisa — she of the I.V. for a zero, the dying mother — asks Mona for a math story. Mona tells her a version of her father’s story, about a pirate kingdom where “there were no glass hospitals and red wigs and I.V.’s,” where “[c]ancer was not a big deal.” The king, an astute mathematician, calculates that each household must choose one pirate to die. But this time, rather than see her family mutilated, the daughter decides to move to another, mortal, town, despite their warning that “Once you die, you won’t get to hear or walk or use your hands or comb your hair at all.” This mournful tale illuminates Mona’s struggle to separate from her family, as well as her capacity to reach out to this little girl who is about to lose her mother. It’s beautiful how the two versions of the story act as metaphors for the journey Mona takes in the novel. It’s also striking how much Bender can convey in the small space of a bittersweet fairytale.

Bender was asked in an interview, collected in Conversations with American Women Writers, “What draws you to the fairy tale method of storytelling,” and she replied, “Everything. The imagination, the brevity, the violence, the sexuality, the humor, the great weird simple laden images like glass coffins, the melting feeling of being told a story. All of it.” Bender’s collections offer us all of this, story after story. In “End of the Line,” from Willful Creatures, Bender creates one of her wonderful fables. A man goes to a pet store and buys a little man in a cage. He likes the little man’s stories, and he also gets a kick out of torturing him. “His little body was so small it was hard to imagine it hurt that much.” But of course it does hurt, and finally the man unlocks the door of his captive’s cage. When the little man heads toward home, the big man follows him.  Shut out of the tiny village, he picks up a hat the size of his thumb. A little girl watches “the giant outside put her hat on his enormous head and could not understand the size of the pity that kept unbuckling in her heart.” The story is rich with metaphorical possibility, and thanks to the great precision and idiosyncrasy of the details, you never feel that it’s operating on an easily translatable (and thus crude) symbolic level. Bender’s favorite quote is from André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto: “Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything.” About Breton’s directive, she told The New York Times, “I love it, but I don’t know if I exactly understand it.” Her stories understand it.

“Motherfucker,” another story in Willful Creatures, charmingly defines the personage of its title not as a consummate jerk, but as a man who romantically pursues mothers. His latest conquest is a movie star, loved by all and deeply sad, though only the motherfucker can see this.  “Desire is a house. Desire needs closed space,” he tells her, and their lovemaking is “a house of desire the exact size and shape of her.” It doesn’t work out between them—she has her career, he has so many other single mothers to service—and we feel that this is how it should be, these two souls left with the loneliness of their desire.

Reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I craved the harshness of the stories, in which the characters are often unkind and reckless, their motives rash and self-destructive. They can be deceitful in ways that are cruel, but funny. The promiscuous narrator in “Fell This Girl” from The Girl in a Flammable Skirt relies on her depressed, overweight sister Eleanor to make her feel better about herself. “I love to go shopping with Eleanor because in contrast I look so great in everything,” she says. In “Fugue,” an “ugly child,” who had been “an ugly teenager” and is now “an ugly adult,” takes a job at a factory where he deliberately puts pills in the wrong bottles. Before that he had a job teaching English to immigrants, and he taught them that “pussy means woman and asshole means friend.” The pleasure of these stories about not very nice people lies in the acerbity of their thoughts, the deviousness of their actions. And the pleasure of the stories about surreal people—a family of pumpkinheads, a woman with potato babies, a girl with a hand of fire, a boy with fingers shaped like keys—lies in their surprising otherness, which is simultaneously inaccessible and moving.

Bender’s novels and her stories, then, feed somewhat different desires. Rose and Mona of the novels are endearing, realistic figures. We like and trust them and hope they will learn to resolve the challenges that life has presented them. We affect the position of a sympathetic observer, cheering on our heroine, trying to understand her struggles. The stories, on the other hand, offer creeping-downstairs-in-the-middle-of-the-night fun. Arousing our many appetites, they lead us out of our houses, our small towns, ourselves—and down one of the saddest roads to everything.

Ask a Book Question: #68 (Building a 21st Century Contemporary Fiction Syllabus)

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Gene writes in with this question:I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I’ve hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year’s syllabus. We currently read Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace (“E Unibus Pluram”) to Chuck Klosterman (“The Real World”). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more “critical” eye.So. I’m trying to replace Fortress for this year’s class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year’s students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven’t read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I’m currently considering Bock’s Beautiful Children, Ferris’ Then We Came To The End, Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work?Five of our contributors weighed in.Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I’ve tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven’t. Of the four you’re considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It’s told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they’re written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It’s equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.Andrew: Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys – where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage’s debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.Emily: Although I wouldn’t say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus – not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages – oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) – not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into – particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book (“Fame – fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.”).Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition – almost zeugma perhaps? – in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political – the sublime and the ridiculous – are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith’s desire to sleep with the vice president’s daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that “refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order” and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it’s an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).Garth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I’d had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction – Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place; Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno – may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Though I didn’t care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two “21st Century” books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders’ Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty’s The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It’s interesting that the students didn’t like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven’t read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones’s two collections – Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children – Jones’s stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones’s The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying “reveal” at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven’t already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.

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