Aimee Bender, An Invisible Sign of My Own (Doubleday, 2000)
[originally posted 13Nov2000]
The climax of this novel is one of the more powerful of the last twenty years or so. Not just because the characters are worth caring about, and not just because the climax is done in such a way that it comes as a total shock to the reader without being unexpected. It’s not just because Aimee Bender is a master of pacing, either. It is all these things in part, but mostly it’s because the situations and characters presented make Twin peaks look like Peyton Place, and by the time the climax rolls around, it’s amazing enough the reader feels right at home in such a town.
Aimee Bender’s protagonist, Mona Gray, is a woman who’s just turned 20. She’s been obsessed with numbers all her life, and it soon becomes obvious that this obsession is her first line of defense against interaction. (She has more dramatic means to keep herself away from people if that one doesn’t work; swallowing soap, for example.) Obviously, she’s not exactly a perfect career woman. So when her parents turn her out (not because they don’t love her, but because they believe it’s the best way to raise a child), it is only by a stroke of luck that she stumbles into a job as the local elementary school’s second-grade math teacher. But how does a woman incapable of forming bonds with others become a competent teacher?
Spelled out like that, it doesn’t sound like the world’s most exciting novel. Dry as dust, in fact. But rest assured this novel is anything but, thanks to a combination of perfect pacing and memorable characters. This isn’t your usual dysfunctional family circus, although there are certainly elements of it; it might be read as such, if you take the town as an extended family. But it has more in common with a conglomeration of the cities in David Lynch’s film version of Wild at Heart; the chic metropolitan sheen of the city where Sailor and Lula start out combined with the measured insanity that seems perfectly normal in the ghost town where the film’s climax occurs.
It’s simple, it’s a remarkably easy read, and it will stay lodged in the memory long after the cover is closed. A remarkable first novel. ****