Kafka in a Bikini

An Invisible Sign of My Own is the debut novel of Aimee Bender, the newest pearl in the string of success stories coming out of UC Irvine's MFA program (she had a Los Angeles Timesbest-seller in 1998 with her collection of stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt). The book is like something dreamed up by someone who reads Kafka in a bikini: Kafka with the edges burned off by sun, his straight-faced bizarreness tranquilized, made okay by a margarita with a pink umbrella in it, the crabbed, spooky psychology smoothed out by waves of heat and beach light and the pleasure of being young, the murky metaphysics replaced by metaphor as breezy as the Coppertone-tinged wind blowing off the pacific Pacific.

Bender is an original, that's for sure: she's a “girl” writer, with the contemporary girl writer's preoccupations (loneliness, loss, longing for connection, depression, sex, love, the impulse toward self-mutilation, death), but she frames her obsessions in a style that moves, like a dream, from realism to fairy tale to surrealism to cartoon in a language whose laconic poetry sometimes emerges from Bender's inventive way with metaphor, sometimes from her amused affection for deliberate dullness.

The world of An Invisible Sign of My Own is flaky, woozy and distanced: everybody in the town seems to weigh about 80 pounds and drift from place to place about three inches off the ground. The significant male characters are named Gray, Smith and Jones. The novel plants a few realistic markers to situate us—a small could-be-anywhere town (I picture an old, dead suburb of San Bernardino), a school, a hardware store, a movie theater, an uncharacteristic nine-story blue-glass hospital—but the details are so sparse, the town so purposely underpopulated, that it feels unweathered and unreal, and so it's no big deal for Bender to bend the book toward the fantastic whenever she feels like it.

The main character, Mona Gray, is light as a bubble and just as ready to pop. She's 19 as the book begins and suffers from a morbid sense of grief that comes from the fact that when she was 10, her father contracted a never-named, perhaps unnameable illness that simply and all at once broke his spirit. Mona didn't catch his disease, but she caught the symptom: feeling what I can only guess is a kind of survivor's guilt, she simply gives up—on running track, on playing the piano, on enjoying sex. (After sex with her only boyfriend, she chews soap till she throws up, her way of getting “the human material off.”) She becomes a quitter. In the grand Henry Jamesian sense, she is unable to live. If her dad won't or can't live, neither will she.

But even those who are spiritually flatlining keep walking through their doggy days, and Mona does, too, by literally knocking on wood everywhere she goes and by cultivating an obsession—mathematics—that, under the circumstances, makes perfect sense: playing constant number games in her head, seeing the shapes of numbers in everyday objects (seven in an ax, for example) gives her the necessary distance and abstraction from the sickness and death she sees everywhere.

She falls into a job teaching math at the local elementary school. (That Mona has no degree and that elementary school kids generally don't have math teachers—they just have “the teacher”—is one of those realistic details Bender sweetly, blithely ignores.) Her defiantly quirky teaching is supposed to give us a sense of the gumption that she has otherwise repressed, I guess, but the classroom passages were too long for what they delivered. Mona manages to befriend a death-obsessed little girl (her mother has cancer), but Mona's self-destructiveness comes home in a scene where she lies in her apartment and nearly cuts off her own leg with an ax. Tentative romantic grappling with the science teacher (Mr. Benjamin Smith, but often referred to by Mona as “the science teacher,” as if she were a pupil at the school) sends her rushing to the bathroom to stick more soap in her mouth.

All these scenes, intertwined with descriptions of Mona's encounters with her parents, are told first-person with a bemused intensity that's wry, dour, petulant, infantile, poetic, passive/ aggressive and valium-y. This Mona is a slippery little thing, and I felt alternately protective of her on-the-edge vulnerability and exasperated by her cutesy idiosyncrasy. The novel could be better paced, but it eventually gets someplace, not by plot development but by a gradual accretion of layered conceits and motifs—more numbers games, more of the ax, more of the soap—until Mona witnesses a cathartic double explosion of self-inflicted violence by two of her students as well as opens herself to love's possibilities. All of which helps her learn that she “can't keep company” with her father's deathwatch on himself, that she has to break the ties that have kept her in thrall to the death in herself. It's tidily told, beginning with a fairy tale about the closed-in destructiveness of families and ending with a retelling of the tale that shows us how Mona has “grown.”

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 An Invisible 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.

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