(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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.


(The entire section is 1344 words.)