Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 459

Aging of the United States Population
The generation known as baby boomers is usually defined as those individuals born between 1945 (the end of World War II) and 1964. In 1997, when “The Rememberer” was first published, older baby boomers had reached middle age, and many had become caregivers for their aging parents. Soon baby boomers got a second nickname: the sandwich generation. Caregivers—usually women—were sandwiched between caring for their own children and caring for their aging parents. The stress of this double burden was compounded by the grief of watching a parent deteriorate physically and often mentally. It is common for the care of the parent to fall to one family member while others, unwilling to witness their parent’s decline, stay away. Though Annie is caring for her lover, not a parent, the stresses are essentially the same. In her character readers see both situations at once: she has the stress and anxiety of being the sole caregiver but also the desire to avoid witnessing Ben’s regression. She realizes she cannot stand to watch him completely de-evolve into a “one-celled wonder, bloated and bordered, brainless, benign, heading clear and small like an eye-floater into nothingness.” So for the sandwich generation, as adults watch their own children evolve into adults, they often face the hardship of witnessing their parents diminish into the aged equivalent of uncertain and frightened dependent toddlers.

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Scientific Breakthroughs
It is no wonder Ben and Annie think too much; the late 1990s presented everyone with plenty to ponder. In February 1997, scientists in Edinburgh, Scotland, announced that they had successfully cloned a female sheep, which they named Dolly. This event immediately gave rise to heated debates over the ethical and moral issues involved in the eventual cloning of human beings. A year earlier, in 1996, analysis of a Mars meteorite found in Antarctica revealed some evidence of life on the planet, including fossil-like depressions and organic compounds usually created by bacteria. In July 1997, NASA’s Mars Pathfinder actually landed on the surface of Mars and sent back hundreds of pictures of the red planet.

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Bender makes references to science in the story; one of her first actions after Ben begins his backward journey is to contact a biology professor for an evolutionary timeline. She anticipates Ben’s eventually becoming a “one-celled wonder” that she will need a microscope to find. Ben also laments that “our brains are getting bigger and bigger,” and as the story ends, Annie feels her skull “to see if it’s growing.” These scientific breakthroughs, the ideas they suggest, and the questions they pose seem to stretch people’s sense of what the individual is, how the individual is created, and what the limits of life might be beyond what was formerly believed.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 667

Magical Realism
Bender’s writing style is usually categorized as magical realism. The term is a suitable oxymoron, combining two contradictory ideas because that is what happens in this style. Magical realism refers to the practice of placing bizarre, surreal events in a realistic context, and treating the unrealistic events as real. Certainly the premise of a human undergoing reverse evolution from a man to a salamander is not realistic, but Bender places these events in the context of an ordinary life. Co-workers call and wonder where Ben is, a book he ordered at the bookstore goes unclaimed, Annie continues working and coming home each day to a smaller and more primitive Ben. When Ben turns into a sea turtle, she keeps him in an ordinary glass baking dish on her kitchen counter. These pedestrian details ground the story for readers, allowing them to imagine themselves in a situation far beyond the realm of reality.

The use of the present tense also makes the story more real and immediate. Annie relates the story as it is happening. Because it unfolds in the present tense, she cannot be imagining these events or embellishing on something that occurred in the distant past.

Point of View
Because “The Rememberer” is written in the first person, from the point of view of Annie, the reader has access to the thoughts and emotions brought on by Ben’s bizarre regression, yet not to the possible explanations that Ben himself could provide. There are clues that this reverse evolution is something that Ben actually desired and wished for, but like Annie, readers cannot be sure, since by the time the story begins, Ben is no longer able to communicate verbally. Annie must decide, without Ben’s help, how much of the Ben she knew is actually left. The first-person viewpoint allows readers to experience Annie’s uncertainty and bewilderment in making this decision.

Bender skillfully uses humor throughout the story, enough to entertain, but not so much that the reader suspects the whole premise is a joke. After Ben becomes an ape, Annie sits with him on the patio, stroking his hand. When he reaches out to her, Annie’s reaction is both realistic and funny: “I said No, loudly, and he seemed to understand and pulled back. I have limits here.” As Annie fields calls from coworkers, “Ben, the baboon, sat in a corner by the window, wrapped up in drapery, chattering to himself.” For the most part, the sheer absurdity of the story’s premise provides its own humor. In the first paragraph, Annie explains, “One day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month and now he’s a sea turtle.” Though the overall tone of the story is bittersweet and melancholy—it is essentially a story of loss—Bender tells readers that few situations in life are without humor, even those that cause grief. Then, too, these scenes lend themselves to psychological readings. Readers might see parallels to a kind of relationship that deteriorates apace with one partner’s quick changes in behavior or might see analogies to those situations in which one partner is on the phone trying to explain the other partner’s silence or withdrawal to the partner’s coworkers or boss.

When the story begins, Annie’s situation with Ben has already reached a crisis point (he is a sea turtle); Annie informs readers through a series of flashbacks, starting with more recent events, and eventually working her way back to the beginning of Ben’s regression, and then further back to a brief history of their relationship. Once readers have the full story of her dilemma, Annie returns to the present, in the thick of her emotional debate: when should she give up and let Ben go? By the time Annie returns to the present tense, readers are fully vested in the story, and the decision she makes carries more emotional weight.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 365

Bender, Aimee, “Marzipan,” in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Anchor Books, 1999, p. 39.

———, “The Rememberer,” in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Anchor Books, 1999, pp. 3–7.

Boudinot, Ryan, “Interview with Aimee Bender,” November 1998, http://www.pifmagazine.com/SID/498 (accessed November 12, 2006).

“An Interview with Aimee Bender,” in Yalobusha Review, Vol. XI, 2006, http://www.olemiss.edu/yalobusha (accessed November 12, 2006).

Kafka, Franz, “The Metamorphosis,” in The Metamorphosis, edited by Stanley Corngold, Norton, 1996, pp. 3–4, 28, 32, 37, 42.

Luis, Fiona, “Bender Evokes Laughter Subdued by Absurdity,” in Boston Globe, August 11, 1998, p. E2.

Mifflin, Margot, Review of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, in Entertainment Weekly, No. 440, July 10, 1998, p. 68.

Review of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 21, May 25, 1998, p. 61.

Schwarz, Christina, “A Close Read: What Makes Good Writing Good,” in Atlantic Monthly, October 2005, p. 124.

Zeidner, Lisa, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Lust,” in New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1998, p. 10.

Further Reading
Burling, Robbins, The Talking Ape: How Language Evolved, Oxford University Press, 2005. This book explores how human language came to be and examines competing linguistic theories and controversies. Burling traces the development of language from gestures and early sounds to the language of modern times.

Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, translated by Maria Tatar, Norton, 2004. Critics have described Bender’s stories as modern fairy tales. This collection of the Grimm brothers’ original fairy tales includes their most famous tales as well as a few that were left out of many books, once the brothers realized that parents were reading the stories to children. The book includes explanatory notes on the historical and cultural origins of the stories.

Parent, Marc, ed., The Secret Society of Demolition Writers, Random House, 2005. This collection of short stories by popular contemporary authors has a unique twist: the authors do not use their real names, leaving the reader to guess who wrote what. The book includes stories by Aimee Bender, Benjamin Cheever, Alice Sebold, Sebastian Junger, and many others.

Young, David, ed., Magical Realist Fiction: An Anthology, Oberlin College Press, 1984. This sizable anthology (over 500 pages) contains stories in the magical realism style from a wide variety of authors, including Tolstoy, Faulkner, Kafka, and García Márquez.

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