Aimee Bender

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1344

When she was at UCI, Aimee Bender was the only one of her class to concentrate on the short-story form. While she claims to admire both this format and that of the novel, perhaps she chose the former because it lent itself to her type of mythic, didactic style. Bender admits to feeling more comfortable in this form. Her early influences included the tales and fables of Jacob and Wilhelm, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and others, and the quality of her work certainly mimics these children’s stories but in an adult manner. Although many of her classmates wrote their first novels in the custom of the young—set in seedy, angst-ridden apartments—Bender “did try to write more traditional things, but didn’t enjoy it as much.” In fact, she found mythic tales “liberating.”

Bender’s characters live in a never-never land somewhere between life and the pages of a story by Sir James Barrie, but their problems and conflicts are very real because they are precisely those that real people avoid at all costs. They are the unconscionable burdens of life that make humanity wake up in the middle of the night, sweating and frightened. Her characters feel incredibly isolated and yearn for human contact to the point of sacrificing their moral beliefs. They suffer inhuman loss and deformity yet must cope with the results of these losses and the results (sometimes offspring) of these deformities. Just as Hansel and Gretel were unthinkably abandoned in the forest, so Bender’s characters must adapt to their trying tragedies with humor, compassion, and creativity.

However, sometimes they fail. As Hugh Garvey pointed out in The Village Voice, “the tales in Flammable are also unified by the characters’ disturbing inability to resolve the conflicting desires for obliteration and connection.” While this conflict may seem to be a paradox, it parallels the very human choice of fight or flight when faced with distasteful dilemmas. Bender’s characters cannot decide (as many people cannot) whether to accede to the incomprehensible, and sometimes fatal, vagaries of life or to do battle with the unknown and unloved. Through them, she provides the solution that there is no solution at all. Everyone must simply cope as best as he or she can with the abilities and afflictions of life.

“Call My Name”

The speaker in this first-person narrative is decked out like a bird of prey in a dress the color of dried blood. Like many single women, she seeks a mate for a sex-driven relationship, but he must be someone nonthreatening, someone she can dominate—or can she? Spreading her spoor around the subway, she spots a likely target. At first he ignores her slithery advances, but then she senses “he’s getting the sexual vibe which makes me feel alive.” The speaker follows him home, trying to make her lust transform him, but he remains steadfast in his refusal of her. He has no wish to make the connection. Finally, he lets her into his apartment, after which she finds herself naked and tied to a chair. Has she won? Has she failed? She hears the sound of winning, but the reader has to wonder if this tale of power and its fatal links is not also an anti-Edenic refutation of the irrefutable attraction of sex.

“What You Left in the Ditch”

A young woman’s husband returns home from the war without lips. As with many of Bender’s stories focusing on the recurring theme of mutilation and loss, this very bizarre image must be viewed in the larger context of loss of communication and contact that may occur after a debilitating rift in a relationship. The wife cannot cope with the return of only a partial husband, in fact hardly a husband at all, as he must wear a pacifier-like prosthesis until his lips can be restored. He becomes her child, someone who must be fed and nurtured, even if this chore is distasteful. She buries her loyalty to him as she buries in the backyard the “dead sweaters” she has knitted and sets off to seduce the grocery checker. However, he is too perfect to “save” her and restore her loss. In the end, she returns to her husband, covering her ears in an imitation of his disability, equalizing their losses so that they may recover their lost relationship.


Superficially, this story is about the naïve notion that love and trust will overcome racial and ethnic hatred. Beneath it all, there are undertones of frustration, loss, and contempt. Renny, a neo-Nazi inmate of a halfway house, and Jill, the activities director of the facility, are in conflict but not necessarily with each other. In fact, each is looking for a mother. For Renny, this madonna figure takes the form of the mothers of his brother’s amours; for Jill, this figure is herself. The found object must also be destroyed, and Renny finds himself scratching out the images of women in photos, while Jill wonders what lies, literally, beneath the skins of her lover and her rabbi. She needs to find “what exactly they were made of.” In an odd replication of the death of the philosopher Hypatia, she needs to do more than scratch the surface of their beings. However, this story is not about the connection between Jew and neo-Nazi but rather a look at forced coexistence between enemies. The ending is ambiguous, as Renny has the opportunity to either make love to Jill or push her off a cliff. The only clue offered is the sexual connection they appear to make, which may or may not salvage a relationship forged in hell.

“Dreaming in Polish”

“There was an old man and an old woman and they dreamed the same dreams.” In a small town, prophets are easily believed and often revered, and so it is in this tale of two Holocaust victims, who repeat their visions, in fragments, to the villagers. When the dreams begin to come true, the town is thrown into a frenzy of obedience. Whatever is augured must be fulfilled, even to the covering of a vague statue of a Greek figure. The caretaker of the statue is a young woman, who works in a store during the day but must care for her invalid father at night. Her mother, who is inclined to walking excursions and Holocaust museums, decides to abandon them for a short trip to a nearby display. Her absence causes an undue share of their responsibilities to fall on the daughter, which is the theme of the story. She is overwhelmed by her love for her father and by the burden his illness has placed on her. The statue, strong and silent, becomes an icon of hope and recovery, a regeneration of their family unit. The old couple? They begin to speak only in Polish, and even in their glossolalia they are revered and upheld as New-World Isaiahs.

“The Ring”

Two robbers break into kitchens and find precious jewels in counter canisters of dry goods. They steal diamond, ruby, and emerald rings, but only the ruby turns out to be cursed. It starts to turn everything red, and in a frenzy they return it, but the wife of the robber cannot live without it, so her husband resteals it to make her happy. They fly to Tahiti, but the ring turns the sea red for a mile, so they destroy it “in [the] red wet mouth of the ocean.” This is the most fablelike of the stories in its simplistic rhetoric; however, the magic lies not in the extraordinary jewels—which are amazingly easy to come by, being guarded only by a large white cat—but in the ordinary items. The sugar in the ruby’s canister is the only essence in the world, it seems, not affected by its crimson taint. The robber’s wife characterizes her husband as a “baker,” and they delight in flour-coated sex. A celebration of the commonplace, this is a venue where thieves are safe.

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