Bender's no great shakes thematically; you get little sense of having deepened your sense of yourself or reality after reading her. What you do get, though, are some marvelous insights and a few scenes of intense strangeness and surprise. I'm thinking of a scene in which Mona meets up with her science teacher. It's a back-to-school night (with the attendant nighttime atmospherics of those events remarkably evoked), and Mona catches Mr. Smith outside his classroom in the dark:
The science teacher had a bubble wand made of string in his right hand, and a cigarette in his left. Leaning down, he dipped the wand into a bucket of soapy water, lifted it up, and pulled back on the string to form the bubble. It bloomed out, rainbowed and loose, jiggly, a belly of a bubble, and then while it wobbled in the air he brought up his left hand, sucked in on the cigarette, and, putting his mouth right to the open gap in the wand, released a puff of smoke inside. The smoke formed into a pearl within the curving pink and blue walls. I tried not to move. The smoke and soap trembled together.
When she does join him, their attempt to forge a bit of beauty in that little corner of their imagination-sapped town has the strange loveliness of those Eric Fischl paintings depicting the sudden flare-up of beauty in otherwise banal settings. Bender doesn't sustain this kind of intensity throughout AnInvisible Sign of My Own—Kafka was always better in short forms, too—but when she gets herself the right tune, that girl can sing.
An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender; Doubleday. 242 pages, $22.95 hardcover.