There are really two writers at work in the fiction of Aimee Bender. First and most conspicuously we find the fabulist, who frequently invests her stories with a surface surrealism by evoking fables and fairy tales. The surreal qualities of her tales might be more pronounced and extreme (a human woman marries an ogre and begets ogre children) or more restrained and less insistent (as in both of her novels), but anyone who reads her collections of short stories in particular would have to conclude she is a writer partial to devices that enhance and distort reality. Nevertheless, there is also a realist lurking beneath the surface of Bender's surreal narratives, a writer who uses the surreal plot turns and fairy tale motifs to render middle-class American life in a way that remains faithful to its underlying configurations and habitual behaviors.
The surrealist Bender ("magical realist" is also a term that she has accepted as a description of her method) undeniably has been influential on other writers (particularly younger women writers), but while arguably her influence was felt strongly because her fiction seemed a significant departure from the norms of the minimalism and neorealism that dominated short fiction in the 1980s and 1990s, she is certainly not the first contemporary writer to work in the anti-realist mode inspired by fairy tales. Such postmodern writers as Robert Coover and Steven Millhauser have consistently practiced this sort of fabulism, but it is in the work of British writer Angela Carter that we really see the comprehensive appropriation of the fairy tale to fashion an invigorating and innovative form of what Robert Scholes called "fabulation." Her stories and novels exploit the elemental patterns and iconography of fairy tales to create very modern (not to mention very adult) works of aesthetically sophisticated fiction.
Bender is clearly enough influenced by Carter, although Bender's approach, and especially her style, are much different than Carter's, in some ways their total opposite. Where Carter bends, twists, and transforms the conventions of the fairy tale, in a prose that is equally sinuous and startling, Bender more or less borrows these conventions and their attendant imagery in order to use them as extensions of her focus on the conflicts of ordinary life, and her prose is generally ordinary as well, more concerned simply with relating the bizarre plot turns than with enlisting language in the effort to transfigure entrenched narrative practice. Where Carter seemed inspired to assimilate the fairy tale in order to expand the formal possibilities of "serious" fiction, Bender seems content to invoke anti-realist strategies already recognizable from the work of writers such as Kafka, Marquez, and Carter herself.
In this way Bender's fiction contrasts as well with that of Rikki Ducornet, Angela Carter's most immediate and, in my view, most accomplished successor. Ducornet is rarely mentioned in discussions of Bender's books (or in interviews with Bender herself), so it must be assumed that whatever effect Ducornet's work may have had on Bender is either minimal or just gets lost in the citation of her other influences (which would not be surprising given the habitual neglect of Ducornet, both as an important writer in general and specifically as an important innovative woman writer). Like Carter, Ducornet uses fabulation as embodied in the fairy tale to create transformed fictional worlds, worlds that are not merely "unreal" but in fact are very real in their integrity as verbal-aesthetic inventions. Partly through her active, vibrant prose style and partly through her dynamic imagination, Ducornet makes us feel we are authentically inhabiting the fabricated world her fiction collectively invokes.
This is not really what Aimee Bender seems to be after. If her fiction does show imagination, it is imagination with a limited effect, the use of a surreal device almost as if it were a kind of trope, a flourish added to the text, not part of a larger effort to create a completely different kind of formal order, one in which such devices would not be the alternative means to the same narrative purposes. Not all of Bender's fiction in fact makes use of these devices. Her first novel in particular, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2001), is essentially a work of straightforward realism, albeit one with a "quirky" cast of characters and an "offbeat" situation. Other of her stories contain few if any surreal or fantastic touches, and these more conventional narratives reflecting a more familiar kind of workshop realism allow us to perceive that the surrealism in Bender's fiction complements its realism more than subverts it. Where the realism of middle-class anxiety and dysfunction leaves off, the whimsical distortion of magical realism takes up.
Perhaps this strategy is best illustrated in Bender's second novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010). Finally this is a novel about the hidden discontents of the American nuclear family, but rather than treat that subject as domestic drama, Bender creates an extended fantasia in which familial unhappiness is revealed not through specific conflict but via a supernatural plot device whereby each member of the family has been endowed with a special power--the daughter and protagonist of the novel is able to "read" food, to determine the emotional state of the person who prepared it, while her brother, we eventually discover, has the ability to disappear into inanimate objects, a power that ultimately he apparently exercises for good, as he vanishes and is not heard from again. Thus the sadness, disappointment, and desperation that afflict this family become manifest, at least to us, although not so directly for the family itself, except the daughter, who otherwise undergoes her journey of maturation more or less quietly, even if her brother's final fate does provide the novel with a creepy enough denouement.
Probably readers find this variation on the bildungsroman effective to the extent they can credit the fantastic elements of the premise. I confess to finding the protagonist's peculiar form of sixth sense an initially intriguing and potentially fruitful literary stratagem, but when Bender expands the trope to encompass the whole family's spooky endowments, the effect mutes the trope's signifying capacity, reducing it to a gimmick that finally can't maintain the integrity of its own quirk, leaving the novel itself stranded awkwardly between whimsical fantasy and a kind of naturalistic family drama in which the family can't escape its hereditary defect. This makes the subplot involving the protagonist's brother less mysterious than melodramatic, heavy-handed rather than horrifying. Indeed, when the protagonist encounters her brother in his apartment as he is in the process of literally disappearing into the chair he sits in, an episode that is clearly meant to be uncanny is really so overwrought as to seem inescapably silly.
In some of Bender's stories, whimsy wins out over all other tonal qualities. "Ironhead," for example, surely among her most surreal stories, tells the tale of a family of pumpkinheads who unaccountably sire a baby with an ironhead instead. The boy feels horribly out of place, of course, and the story pulls heavily at our heartstrings in provoking feelings of pity for the poor lad:
The ironhead turned out to be a very gentle boy. He played quietly on the his own in the daytime with clay and dirt, and contrary to expectations, he preferred wearing ragged messy clothes with wrinkles. His mother tried once to smooth down his outfits with her own, separated iron, but when the child saw what was his head, standing by itself, with steam exhaling from the flat silver base just like his breath, he shrieked a tinny scream and matching steam streamed from his chin as it did when he was particularly upset. . . .
A passage like this comes perilously close to, if it doesn't topple over completely into, a cartoon-like sentimentality. The remainder of the story doesn't really advance beyond this level of emotional engagement. Once we've registered the notion that a boy has been born with an iron for a head, the story has little more to offer. It continues to rely on faux-naïve phrasing ("a very gently boy," "played quietly") and an altogether formulaic plot--the iron-headed boy dies, of course, leaving everyone very sad. In another story in the same book (Willful Creatures), "The End of the Line," a "big man" goes to a pet store "to buy himself a little man to keep him company." This rather tepidly surrealist premise established, again the story proceeds in a fairly predictable, and rather mawkish, fashion. The big man begins to torture the little man, who contemplates his escape but is unable to accomplish it. The big man sets the little man free, but decides to follow him as he drives away in a "small blue bus"--he "just wanted to see where they lived." A (literally) little girl looks up at the "giant" who has found them and wonders at the "size of the pity that kept unbuckling in her heart."
For a "parable" like this to work, in my opinion, it either has to implicitly examine the structural and thematic assumptions of the parable itself (in the process reconfiguring the possibilities of the form) or it has to manifest some stylistic vigor to compensate for the formulaic nature of parables and fables. Carter and Ducornet, as well as, say, Borges, Calvino, or Donald Barthelme, are writers who readily perform each of these tasks, but Bender's stories do neither. Beneath the ultimately superficial distortions of ordinary reality, plot conventions associated with the fabulative mode are preserved more or less unselfconsciously, and the stories are related in a flat and affectless style that mostly keeps the reader's attention on the developing actions. (Narrated in the first person, Bender's two novels are somewhat less illustrative of this style.) It's as if the author wants to urgently draw our attention to the strange events unfolding in these stories, except that they're related in such low intensity language they seem strangely uninteresting.
Bender's most recent book, the story collection The Color Master, is generally of a piece with her two previous collections, containing stories by both the realist and the surrealist Bender. A number of the former are first-person narratives, and thus the stylistic tenor of the book as a whole is more varied than The Girl in the Flammable Skirt or Willful Creatures. Among the realist stories "The Fake Nazi" and "The Doctor and the Rabbi" are perhaps the most effective, in each case managing to effectively evoke strong emotions in contexts that might seem inauspicious ("The Fake Nazi," about a man who falsely accuses himself of having been a Nazi) or hopelessly grandiose ("The Doctor and the Rabbi," about the title characters talking about God), while "Tiger Mending" seems impossibly twee, succumbing to the kind of sentimentality that mars many of Bender's surreal fables. The best story in the book is the title story, a "prequel" of sorts to the French fairy tale, "Donkeyskin." It is a story that recalls the work of Carter or Ducornet more than any other of Bender's fairy tale-derived fictions.
In my view, Aimee Bender's fiction is more important as a sign of a shift in sensibility among current writers than a significant aesthetic achievement advancing the cause of innovative fiction. Her stories, beginning with the debut collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998), announced that an alternative to minimalist realism was available, a call that later writers such as Karen Russell, Kate Bernheimer and Joanna Ruocco clearly heeded. Whether these writers will ultimately ratify and extend the legacy of Carter and Ducornet more convincingly than has Bender herself is still to be determined, but unless Aimee Bender is freshly inspired to transcend the limitations of the strategies she has continued to employ so far, her work is unlikely to be a further part of that effort.