"There's some kind of beautiful darkness in people that I find moving and interesting and profound. There's something about darkness and humor together that's a magical combination." Aimee Bender's novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, reaches for that teetering place between humor and tremendous grief. It does this with language that's quick and surprising, and characters that are simultaneously ordinary and fantastic. It's the world of a small town; everybody in the town has a life that's partially public, and partially hidden. Indications of private sadness surface via obscure signs, which most people refuse to notice.
One of the more clear signs is in the form of a necklace: Mr. Jones, a math teacher-turned- hardware store-owner, wears wax numbers on his neck rating his own daily happiness, and nobody notices other than Mona Gray, the narrator. Later, as an adolescent, even Mona refuses to acknowledge the visible scale of Mr. Jones' interior life. Another character, Mr. O'Mazzi, the glassmaker, slams his arm in the car door with the intention of claiming the position of first to use the town's new hospital. When the is arm is amputated, it's sealed in glass and kept as a point of pride, "First Surgery," rather than a low spot of desperate longing for acclaim.
With this dreamlike combination of the likely and the unlikely--small town lives and a human arm forever sealed in glass and displayed on a mantel--Bender illuminates a larger, emotional truth. She says, "There's a mystery about how people contend with their stuff in life. We look at each other in the world, look around and see all these people, and so much of everything is internal and entirely unknown. But we all have our own collection, our own set of things we're dealing with. The mystery of that, this internal collection, is painful because there's really nothing you can do. So there's this refusal to notice."
Grief appears indirectly, despite a surface of language designed to both reveal and distract. The narrative is full of human confusion, flights of fancy and misguided protective strategies. The narrator, after giving up everything she's ever taken pleasure in and trying to give up the indulgence of sex and love, conditions herself to associate soap simultaneously with sex and nausea. When Mona meets a man who takes an interest in her, she hides in the bathroom and eats soap. "I brought the whole bar up to my lips and rolled it halfway inside my mouth, sucking on the white curves, lolling the smoothness over my tongue, drinking the water off the white...Mr. Smith was standing outside the door, I could hear him humming an old fashioned big-band tune, and when I came out, completely sick to my stomach, he took me back into his arms." There's a power in the juxtaposition of sensuality and repulsion.
I asked Aimee Bender what scared her most about writing. She said, "It's scary to push yourself to go into the places I want to go, the dark places, but it's also scary to think about not going there. There's a kind of violence and pain and love and anger and joy, all mixed together in my work. Going to those places feels scary but it also feels like the point. Why else would I write?"