Aimee Bender's unusual short story, "The Rememberer," was first published in the Missouri Review in the fall of 1997. In 1998, Bender included the story in her debut collection, entitled The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. Most of the stories in the collection have a surreal, fairy-tale quality, and several feature bizarre physical transformations (in one story, for example, a woman gives birth to her own mother, and her husband wakes up to find a hole in his stomach "the size of a soccer ball").
"The Rememberer" tells the story of a woman whose lover, overnight, begins to evolve in reverse, from a man to an ape and then to a sea turtle. Though the situation is bizarre, it is placed in a realistic setting; the characters have an unremarkable relationship, ordinary jobs, and a normal home. This juxtaposition of the ordinary and the bizarre is a hallmark of magical realism, a modern literary genre used by authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and Angela Carter. Though the events are not based on reality, the themes explored are relevant to the real world; for those who care for frail elderly parents or spouses with Alzheimer's disease, the story of a woman watching a loved one regress into mindlessness strikes a familiar emotional chord. Bender also examines the idea that as people become more and more cerebral, they lose the ability to feel emotion and become detached from the actual experience of their lives.
The Girl in the Flammable Skirt was well-received by critics, who praised Bender for both
her wild imagination and insight into human emotions. Bender followed the collection with her first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own.
Aimee Bender was born in Los Angeles, California, on June 28, 1969. The youngest of three girls, Bender idolized her older sisters and often tagged along after them. Bender's father, a psychiatrist, and her mother, a choreographer, were early influences; in an interview with pif magazine, Bender said, "My dad, through psychiatry, is dealing with the unconscious … and my mom is delving into her own unconscious to make up dances…. And I'm sort of the combo platter, in that psychiatry is so essentially verbal … and also I am like her in that it's all about creating from this inexplicable mysterious place." Another early influence was the book Transformations by Anne Sexton, a volume of rewritten fairy tales, which Bender read as a teenager. "Only later, in rereading it, did I see how hugely it had influenced my own stuff," she said in a 2006 interview with the Yalobusha Review.
Bender received her undergraduate degree from the University of California at San Diego, then went on to get her Master of Fine Arts from the University of California at Irvine. While at UCI she studied with Judith Grossman and Geoffrey Wolff. Soon Bender's stories were being published in literary reviews such as the Threepenny Review, Granta, and Story, and in 1998, her first collection of stories, titled The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, was published ("The Rememberer" is included in this collection). Her debut was very successful; the book was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of 1998 and spent seven weeks on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list.
After this first collection, Bender took on a new challenge: her first novel. In 2000, Doubleday published An Invisible Sign of My Own, the story of a young second-grade math teacher dealing with anxiety and depression. Then in 2005, Bender returned to the short story with her second collection, Willful Creatures.
In addition to writing, Bender has taught writing at several universities. As of 2006, she was teaching full time at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
As "The Rememberer" opens, the female narrator informs readers that her lover is "experiencing reverse evolution." A sentence later it becomes clear that she does not mean this in a figurative sense; her lover, Ben, turned first into an ape, and now, a month later, he is a sea turtle.
After this startling introduction, Annie, the narrator, explains that she has determined Ben is "shedding a million years a day." His office has called asking where he is, and Annie told them he was sick. She keeps Ben, the sea turtle, in a baking pan full of water; each day when she returns home, he has regressed into a more primitive form.
Annie describes the day he first began his backwards journey; Ben had been lamenting, in his sad way, that people think too much. "Our brains are getting bigger and bigger, and the world dries up and dies when there's too much thought and not enough heart." Annie and Ben made love, and to reassure him, Annie whispered in his ear, "See, we're not thinking." Afterwards, they went outside to the patio. Ben said he wanted to sleep outside, so Annie left him there and went to bed by herself. When she woke up the next morning, she looked outside and Ben the man was gone; in his place, a large ape lay on the patio.
At first Annie handled the situation calmly, thinking Ben would eventually return to normal. Now, however, she has realized this may not happen.
Now Annie returns home from work and Ben, in his baking pan, has become a small salamander. Seeing this, she realizes, "This is the limit of my limits … I cannot bear to look down into the water and not be able to find him at all." So she takes the pan, with Ben inside, to the beach, where she sets it afloat on the water and waves goodbye.
Now she waits, wondering if Ben will ever return as a man. She makes sure all her memories of him are still vivid, "because if he's not here, then it is my job to remember."
Annie is the female narrator of the story. Ben, her lover, laments that he and Annie "think far too much." There is ample evidence throughout the story that Annie, indeed, thinks too much. For example, when Annie describes the first time she and Ben had sex, she says that she "concentrated really hard on letting go," a sort of emotional oxymoron. Also, the fact that she consults a teacher at the community college to determine the rate of Ben's backward progress indicates her intellectual, rather than emotional orientation.
There is evidence too that Annie is aware of the way she overthinks life and is trying to change. At one point, Ben takes her outside, shows her the stars, and tells her, "There is no space for anything but dreaming." She goes back to bed but cannot sleep and ends up outside again, trying hard to dream, as Ben suggested, but she is not sure how.
Though she over intellectualizes, Annie is not a cold or unsympathetic character. Her love for Ben is real, and she expresses many tender sentiments about him. Even when Ben becomes an ape, Annie says, "I didn't miss human Ben right away; I wanted to meet the ape, too, to take care of my lover like a son, a pet; I wanted to know him every possible way."
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- After Ben begins his reverse evolution, Annie asks a biology professor to make her an evolutionary timeline. The professor's timeline turns out to be wrong. Research theories of evolution, and using your research, create your own evolutionary timeline.
- Ben tells Annie, "We're all getting too smart. Our brains are just getting bigger and bigger." Do you agree? Write an essay explaining your position. Use factual evidence (IQ statistics, medical research, etc.) to support your opinion.
- Due to the aging of the baby boomer generation, soon more and more people will find themselves in the caretaker role that Annie assumes with Ben. Research the number of Americans over sixty years of age, and make a graph showing the increase in this age group by the year 2020, the year 2030, and the year 2040.
- "The Rememberer" begins in medias res, a Latin term meaning "in the middle of things." The term usually refers to a story that begins in mid-action; in this story, Ben has already regressed to the form of a sea turtle when the story begins. Write a short story that begins in medias res.
Ben, Annie's lover, is "always sad about the world." This is probably because Ben, like Annie, thinks too much. In fact, rather than just being sad and experiencing that emotion, Annie says that she and Ben would "sit together and be sad and think about being sad and sometimes discuss sadness." After he becomes an ape, the bookstore calls to tell him that his "out-of-print special-ordered book on civilization" is ready to be picked up, indicating that even though Ben knew he and Annie were thinking too much, he was unable to stop. The night before he begins his regression, he tells Annie that he hates talking, and he wants to communicate with her just by looking into her eyes. Finally, it seems the only way Ben can stop thinking so much is to actually de-evolve, to stop being human.
Bender makes an interesting choice in naming this character: Ben becomes what has been before, what humans were before they were human.
The Burden of Caregiving
The gradual regression of Ben from human to salamander is analogous to the progressive decline of an Alzheimer's patient. Caring for the frail elderly or any loved one with an injury or progressive disease that deteriorates cognitive ability places enormous stress on the caregiver. Like Annie, caregivers feel the need to become the rememberer, both in a sentimental sense (being sure to retain the patient's life memories and recall the person's original personality) and also in a practical sense (taking over the paying of bills, scheduling appointments, remembering when medication must be taken, etc.). The reader gets the feeling that, unlike someone suffering with dementia or Alzheimer's, Ben has made a conscious decision to give up thinking, thus burdening Annie with the responsibility of thinking for both of them. Near the beginning of the story, Annie asks Ben, the sea turtle, "Ben … can you understand me?" Close to the end (when Ben is a salamander), she asks again, "Ben … do you remember me? Do you remember?" Of course, she gets no answer, and once again the burden of decision-making is hers. The stress of the burden is evident in this passage: "Now I come home from work and look for his regular-size shape walking and worrying and realize, over and over, that he's gone. I pace the halls. I chew whole packs of gum in mere minutes." Finally, Annie reaches "the limit of [her] limits" and decides to let Ben go, releasing him into the ocean, just as many caregivers must make the final decision to cease life-prolonging procedures (such as intravenous feeding and other life-support mechanisms) and let nature take its course. In Bender's scenario, the caregiver suffers more than the actual patient, and her final decision is born of her own desire to avoid more suffering: "I cannot bear to look down into the water," she says, "and not be able to find him at all." Ben, who is no longer burdened by thought, is now at peace; Annie is the afflicted one. Bender poignantly illustrates the emotional strain of being the rememberer.
The Dangers of Intellectualism
Ben tells Annie that they both think too much, "and the world dries up and dies when there's too much thought and not enough heart." This is an interesting choice of words by Bender, because as Ben devolves, he progresses from a land mammal (an ape) to an aquatic creature (a sea turtle and then a salamander). Apparently he has reversed the drying up process, by eliminating thought.
Later in the story readers learn that before becoming an ape, Ben had ordered a book on civilization from the bookstore. Perhaps Ben was interested in the evolution of civilization, in which the focus of society shifted gradually from religion and towards science, explaining away the mysteries of the stars and planets and other natural phenomena. The shift away from religion and towards science placed more emphasis on rational thought and less on superstition and intuition. While this is generally considered positive, many people (like Ben) feel that it has also insulated people from their own emotions. Ben is craving life on an intuitive, instinctive level, away from thought; he takes Annie outside under the stars and tells her, "Look, Annie, look—there is no space for anything but dreaming."
The popularity of meditation, in which one attempts to gradually leave the busy thoughts of the mind behind and simply exist in the moment, indicates that Ben is not alone in his desire. Ben's difficulties raise an intriguing question: though people normally consider the increasing sophistication of the human brain as evolutionary progress, is there a point at which it becomes counterproductive? Has an increase of intellect led to similar emotional progress, or has emotional evolution lagged behind? Some might consider the continued proliferation of war and crime evidence that humans have evolved less on an emotional level than intellectually. Bender's story illustrates the struggle to find a balance between emotion and thought. Ben, in his desire to abandon thought, regresses in all areas, until he becomes a less complex form of life (a salamander) and is still continuing to regress. Most people would prefer a middle ground; one could say that humans must learn to be amphibious, able to exist both in the depths of their emotions and on the dry land of their intellect.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Critical reception to Bender's first short story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (which includes "The Rememberer") was very positive: The New York Times selected it as a Notable Book of 1998, and the Los Angeles Times named it one of the best works of fiction for that year as well. A reviewer from Publishers Weekly calls the collection "a string of jewels," and Fiona Luis of the Boston Globe writes, "Each short story packs quite a hefty punch, and each should be savored." Several reviewers single out "The Rememberer" for praise, including Margot Mifflin of Entertainment Weekly, who writes that Bender's "account of a woman whose lover evolves backward [is] superbly imagined."
More than one reviewer praises Bender's ability to combine her bizarre and sometimes comic story lines with genuine, deeply felt emotion. This ability is evident in "The Rememberer"; Luis writes, "This bizarrely comic tale would be rib-splittingly funny save for the simple fact that Bender breaks your heart." Praising this same skill in the collection as a whole, the reviewer from Publishers Weekly writes: "While full of funny moments, these tales are neither slight nor glib. They recognize that to be human is to be immensely fragile, and their characters are always unmistakably human."
Some reviewers feel that while the debut is impressive, Bender's relative inexperience as a writer sometimes shows. Mifflin writes, "Some of Bender's forays into magical realism feel like collegiate exercises," and Lisa Zeidner of the New York Times Book Review agrees: "The weakest [stories] juxtapose multiple plot lines—a standard creative-writing workshop ploy—without much more point than to showcase the skill of the juggler." Both Mifflin's and Zeidner's overall reviews of the collection, however, are positive.
Many reviewers praise Bender's singular style; the reviewer from Publishers Weekly writes, "Bender's is a unique and compassionate voice," and Christina Schwarz, in an Atlantic Monthly review of Bender's later collection, Willful Creatures, says that Bender's prose is
"so animated it seems almost capable of writing itself," and is "just plain fun to read." Overall, the consensus seems to be that Bender's talent as a writer is evident in these stories and that she has the potential to become even more skilled in the future.
Pryor has a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Michigan and over twenty years experience in professional and creative writing with special interest in fiction. In the following essay, she compares the transformation of Ben in "The Rememberer" to that of Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis."
Aimee Bender's story "The Rememberer" centers on the transformation of the narrator's lover from a man to an assortment of animals, as he de-evolves. Arguably the most famous story of such a transformation is Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," in which the main character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning to discover that he has become a huge insect. Though Bender's and Kafka's writing styles are drastically different, the two stories share thematic similarities beyond the metamorphosis of man to beast.
In "The Rememberer," Bender implies, through flashbacks to earlier conversations with Ben, that his transformation was not an entirely unwelcome event, but rather something desired. Though Gregor Samsa probably did not wish, specifically, to become an insect, the transformation brings him some obvious benefits, too. Gregor despises his job, so much so that his hatred of it supersedes even his horror at becoming a giant bug; even after making the discovery that he has transformed, his thoughts immediately turn back to his job: "Oh God … what a grueling job I've picked! Day in, day out—on the road." Once he becomes an insect, he can no longer continue his job as a traveling salesman. He has escaped.
Ben seeks to escape not his job, but the tyranny of his own intellect. He tells Annie, the narrator, "We think far too much." Since Ben is a man of conscience, his thinking extends beyond himself to the woes of the world. Annie says, "He was always sad about the world." In his transformation, Ben seeks to escape the burden he has taken on, the troubles of the entire planet. Gregor Samsa's burdens are closer to home; he supports his parents and his teenage sister, and in addition, he is paying off a debt his parents owe his employer. He thinks to himself, "If I didn't hold back for my parents' sake, I would have quit long ago." He imagines leaving his job once he pays off the debt, but since "that will probably take another five or six years," Gregor's immediate future looks pretty bleak. Interestingly, after their transformations, both men are contacted first by their employers, demanding to know where they are. Gregor's manager barely allows him an hour's grace before he actually arrives at the Samsas' house, at 7:15 a.m., berating him. Annie fields calls from Ben's office: "Why wasn't he at work? Why did he miss his lunch date with those clients?" Once the employers find out the men cannot work (Gregor's boss actually sees him in his insect state, whereas Annie tells Ben's office that he is suffering from a "strange sickness"), they never contact them again. Implied is the idea that men, in contemporary society, are still valued mainly for their ability to be productive, to make a contribution; once they lose this ability, they are abandoned.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Gabriel García Márquez is the preeminent practitioner of magical realism, the genre with which Aimee Bender's work is often associated. Márquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) is considered to be one of his finest works.
- Angela Carter is another well-known magical realist. Bender cites "The Company of Wolves," a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, as one of her favorite Carter stories. This story can be found in the collection, The Bloody Chamber (1979), which includes Carter's unique take on several other fairy tales.
- Bender cites Transformations (1971), by poet Anne Sexton, as an early influence. Sexton retells familiar fairy tales such as Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood; Sexton's versions are dark, twisted, and sometimes humorous.
- Bender's first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000), tells the story of twenty-year-old Mona Gray, who teaches second-grade math. Mona has gradually withdrawn from life since her father began to suffer from an unnamed illness; in helping one of her students cope with tragedy, Mona begins to recover herself.
- Willful Creatures, published in 2005, is Bender's second short story collection. The stories in this collection take a darker turn than those in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, but the plots are just as surreal, including a couple with pumpkins for heads and a man who buys a miniature man at a pet shop and keeps him in a cage.
- Bender's older sister Karen is also an author. Her debut novel, Like Normal People, tells the story of Ella Rose, an elderly woman, and her daughter Lena, who is retarded and living in a group home.
In both stories, the metamorphosis places a significant amount of stress on the transformer's loved ones. Annie feels the need to pick up thinking where Ben left off: "I review my memories and make sure they're still intact because if he's not here, then it's my job to remember." Gregor's family is not only horrified at his new form, they are also left without income, and his father, mother, and sister must all seek employment to compensate. Annie's reaction to Ben's situation is a deep sadness; she reviews poignant memories of their time together and searches for explanations. Gregor's family reacts at first with horror, then grief, but eventually they come to resent Gregor's abandonment of them and the burden he has thus placed upon them. In one scene, when Gregor leaves the confines of his room, his father pelts him with apples; one lodges in his flesh and remains there, festering, for over a month. Only his sister treats him with kindness, but she too eventually turns on him. This is ironic, since it is likely that Gregor's resentment of the burden his family placed upon him is what caused the transformation in the first place.
Because "The Metamorphosis" is written from the viewpoint of the character who transforms, the reader knows Gregor is still capable of intelligent thought and human emotion. Since "The Rememberer" is told from Annie's point of view, not Ben's, there is no way of knowing if Ben is still thinking in the human sense. The logical assumption is that he is not, since thought is exactly what Ben sought to escape. Still, Annie attempts communication with him, even when he is a lowly salamander, asking "Do you remember me?" No one in the Samsa family speaks to Gregor; they all assume that because he is an insect, he can no longer understand them. This assumption leads to increasing neglect. His sister stops cleaning his room, and though at first she takes pains to find out what foods he will enjoy, later in the story, she "hurriedly shoved any old food into Gregor's room with her foot."
Both men are eventually abandoned. Gregor's family does their best to ignore his existence, and his sister actually encourages Mr. and Mrs. Samsa to "try to get rid of it." This turns out to be unnecessary, because his sister's betrayal is the last straw for Gregor: He dies shortly afterwards. Annie's abandonment is less harsh: She simply releases Ben into the ocean. Still, as with the Samsas, the motive behind her action is not concern for Ben, but an unwillingness to endure more grief: "I cannot bear to look down into the water and not be able to find him at all, to search the tiny clear waves with a microscope lens and to locate my lover, the one-celled wonder."
In the end, Gregor's family undergoes a transformation as well. Unable to continue to use Gregor as a crutch, they all become more self-sufficient. Gregor notices that his once stooped and shuffling father "was holding himself very erect … his usually rumpled white hair was combed flat, with a scrupulously exact, gleaming part." His sister blossoms into a woman and gets "livelier and livelier" after Gregor's death. Annie, by contrast, continues to wait for Ben's return: "I make sure my phone number is listed. I walk around the block at night in case he doesn't quite remember which house it is." Still, Annie is also changed. She has learned something about the limits of the intellect; at the end of the story, she says, "Sometimes before I put my one self to bed, I place my hands around my skull to see if it's growing, and wonder what, of any use, would fill it if it did."
Both stories can be interpreted as cautionary tales about seeking to escape the burdens of life. Both men wished to be free of the weight they carried—for Gregor, the weight of supporting his family, and for Ben, the weight of constant thought and worry. It is probably safe to assume, however, that neither wished for the specific form that their liberation took; Ben probably did not specifically wish to de-evolve into a salamander, and Gregor certainly did not yearn to be a giant insect. Their escape from their problems simply handed them a new, radically different set of hardships. In getting rid of their burdens, they also lost the people they loved. The price of freedom turned out to be far higher than Ben or Gregor could have known.
Source: Laura Pryor, Critical Essay on "The Rememberer," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Dyer holds a Ph.D. in English literature and has published extensively on fiction, poetry, film, and television. He is also a freelance university teacher, writer, and educational consultant. In the following essay, he discusses Bender's story as an example of metafiction, as a story that traces its own construction from the original moment of an idea through to a fully realized narrative complete with setting, plot, and characters.
Metafiction is a style of writing that draws attention to itself in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, as well as delighting in the nature of its own storytelling. In Aimee Bender's "The Rememberer," metafiction is a reflexive exercise that, like a funhouse mirror, allows readers to experience a "reverse evolution." Aligned with such important antecedents as Miguel Cervantes's Don Quijote (1605) and Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1817), Bender's story does more than expose the act of writing to new scrutiny. It also questions a world increasingly predisposed to ignore the mysteries shaping everyday occurrences in favor of the comforts of the known and the knowable.
Annie, the narrator of Bender's "The Rememberer," opens her own story with an amazing announcement: Her "lover," Ben, "is experiencing reverse evolution." This dramatic statement connects Annie's story to the great creation myths from Genesis through to Darwin's Origin of Species (1859). Ben is recreated through a series of clearly defined, but wholly fantastic, devolutionary stages. Originally a human, he soon is reimagined as an ape, a sea turtle, and finally a salamander. As Annie points out, following her exchange with "the old biology teacher at the community college," the creative revisioning of Ben moves across time in ways that defy understanding. "He is shedding a million years a day," she calculates, despite the fact that she openly admits she is "no scientist" and prefers to see his condition as "a strange sickness." To understand Ben's relocation along the evolutionary line as anything other than a freak show or sickness demands a leap into the world of the creative imagination, which Annie is not quite ready to take.
As Annie struggles to understand Ben's condition, his importance in her life gradually reveals itself to be much more than that of a casual lover. He was the source of her inspiration and the stimulus for her own stories. Through his reverse evolution, Ben provides a primer on how to live a creative life, a how-to-guide to remembering. On the last day that she sees Ben as a human, for instance, Annie talks with him about the sadness he feels and about his view of a world increasingly dominated by intellect. To Annie and to the attentive reader, Ben's realization is profound: "Our brains are just getting bigger and bigger," he concludes, and "we think far too much." Reminding his lover of the need to see her world with her heart and imagination rather than allowing herself to be controlled by her mind, Ben essentially counsels her to turn off reason in order to feel: "The world dries up and dies," he warns her, "when there's too much thought and not enough heart."
At first, Annie admits that this new way of seeing is foreign to her. She finds it difficult not to concentrate "really hard on letting go" when she makes love with Ben, leaving their attempt at physical intimacy unconsummated in the sense of being left off "in the middle of everything." Their interrupted lovemaking is replaced by " an hour-long conversation about poetry."
Annie remembers their discussion of Walt Whitman's famous poem "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" (1900). They go outside to contemplate dreaming under the night sky: "He woke me up in the middle of the night," she recalls, "lifted me off the pale blue sheets, led me outside to the stars and whispered: "Look, Annie, look—there is no space for anything but dreaming." In a moment that speaks volumes about the limitations that she has placed on her heart and imagination, Annie is forced to acknowledge that she does not yet know how "to dream up to the stars." She says, "I tried to find a star that no one in all of history had ever wished on before and wondered what would happen if I did."
But as the story unfolds, Ben becomes smaller and increasingly amphibian, and Annie's heart and imagination grow larger. She imagines a world that exists beyond words, a place past metaphor. She feels more and conveys emotions with a look rather than with words. In one of her final conversations with Ben, Annie opens herself to his desire to avoid language. He would rather, he explains, "look into [her] eyes and tell [her] things that way." Once she crosses this threshold of language and reason, Annie responds physically and connects emotionally with the quickly devolving Ben. When her lover looks into her eyes, she feels her "skin lift." The next morning, when human Ben has morphed into an ape, Annie reacts with understanding and curiosity instead of with panic or loathing. In other words, she reacts with her heart instead of her mind. The reverse evolution continues: Annie comes home one day to find Ben is "some kind of salamander now."
Salamanders have the ability to regenerate lost limbs: Annie can regenerate her own storytelling. Forcing herself to "review [her] memories and make sure they're intact," Annie becomes a storyteller who watches her own story of Ben. She is, in other words, a storyteller who experiences what she acknowledges is "the limit of [her] limits": she looks, metaphorically, into the microscopic origins of her own inspiration. Fearful that she will quest perpetually for the irretrievable story of Ben, Annie recognizes that she now sees the world with her heart and can appreciate its mystery and wonder. Searching for Ben as both a human and a story, Annie comes to imagine the stories that circulate within "the one-celled wonder, bloated and bordered, brainless, benign, heading clear and small like an eye-floater into nothingness."
Having returned Ben the salamander to the sea, Annie returns to her world a changed woman and a changed storyteller. Just as Ben has reverse evolved to the simpler form of the salamander, Annie's story of Ben returns to the point where all stories must begin: in a moment of insight and in a flash of imagination. As she releases Ben at the water's edge, Annie releases herself. Annie becomes a rememberer, someone who lives life fully aware of the past.
She knows that to engage life as a writer is to live, as she observes early in the story, in "a sea of me." With Ben gone, Annie is able to become, for the first time, the "one self" that she has always hoped to be rather than a writer who is defined by other people's dreams and visions. She is free to transcend the limitations of her previous existence and to become more than "a poor soul with all the ingredients but no container" in which to store them.
In this sense, Bender's story is testament to Annie's own evolution, to her rememberings of journeys away from an imagined life that had left her trapped in reason. Ben's release occurs as Annie turns her back on the shore and waves. She returns to her car ready to begin her journey into the new world. The story ends, too, with Annie hoping that Ben might one day "wash up on shore" and comes back to her. Bender's "The Rememberer" ends with a looping back, a return to the beginning: Annie returns to the world in order that she might tell the story of a lover who, as the opening sentence announces, "is experiencing reverse evolution."
Source: Klay Dyer, Critical Essay on "The Rememberer," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of Aimee Bender's work.
Aimee Bender is a writer and teacher of writing whose short stories have appeared in numerous publications. Bender's The Girl in the Flammable Skirt: Stories is her debut collection of sixteen modern adult fairy tales which feature unusual characters, many with physical deformities. Library Journal reviewer Joanna M. Burkhardt wrote that the events and people in the collection "somehow acquire the bizarre, the grotesque, and the darkly satirical." The title of Bender's collection is a reference to the cheap rayon skirts that combusted at the touch of a flame.
In "The Rememberer," a woman watches her lover go through reverse evolution—from ape to sea turtle to salamander—and then releases him to the ocean and says goodbye. "What You Left in the Ditch" tells of a woman's seduction of a teen grocery clerk after her soldier husband returns from war minus his lips. In "Quiet Please," a librarian has encounters with a succession of men in the library's back room, her way of dealing with grief after her father's death. A woman steals a ruby in "The Ring" and then finds that everything it touches turns red. In another story a woman gives birth to her own elderly mother, while at the same time a hole appears in her husband's body where his stomach had been.
A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that "as Bender explores a spectrum of human relationships, her perfectly pitched, shapely writing blurs the lines between prose and poetry." Lisa Zeidner wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Bender's stories "are powered by voice—by the pleasure of the electric simile." Zeidner noted the "magic realism" of Bender's Los Angeles, calling it "Malibu Marquez." Zeidner categorized the stories she felt were most realistic as being about "Fatalistic Dating," while the "weakest ones juxtapose multiple plot lines." In The Girl in the Flammable Skirt Bender "aims to be sneakily incendiary and often succeeds," continued the critic: "Many of these stories are as catchy as [the book's] title, with a winning cheekiness."
Bender's next work was the novel An Invisible Sign of My Own. In this work, Bender tells the story of twenty-year-old Mona Gray, a second grade mathematics teacher in a small town. Leading an unhappy life full of anxiety and depression, Mona is also obsessed with numbers. Reviewing this work for Booklist, Michelle Kaske noted that An Invisible Sign of My Own is a "wonderful … treatment of anxiety, depression, and compulsion."
In her collection Willful Creatures: Stories, Bender offers fifteen stories that explore the unusual, and frequently cruel, interactions between people who love each other. The tales are "daringly original," and "bursting with heart and marvel," according to a Publishers Weekly writer. Some of the stories are somewhat realistic, others more surrealistic. Characters include a boy with key-shaped fingers, who wishes to unlock his father's secrets; a group of cruel teenaged girls; and a couple whose child is killed by the weight of his own huge head. With these tales, Bender shows that she is "intent on rewriting the grim fable of modern life," noted a Kirkus Reviews writer, who praised the author for writing "with bite and wit."
Bender's work has been described as having a mythical quality, something the author cultivates in her stories. As she told Dave Weich in an interview for Powells.com: "Saying ‘the man’ or ‘the woman,’ sometimes I like those words better than the words of names, even though it's true that once you name someone they're more specific and the reader can identify with them more. Maybe it's just an attraction to a kind of fairytale storytelling—it feels like names would be slightly too specific for the story…. It feels like a texture to me. The texture would go a little wrong if the character was named, if the story wants to be more mythic. As soon as someone is named, the story enters the world of reality a little more. As soon as a capital letter comes into play, it looks different and it feels different."
Source: Thomson Gale, "Aimee Bender," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following interview, Bender talks about the mental and physical aspects of her writing and the thematic unity in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt.
[Ryan Boudinot:] Why did you divide your book into three different sections? Do you feel a sort of thematic unity to these stories?
[Aimee Bender:] The three parts—I must admit it was the editor's original idea but I liked it because three is such a good mythic number. I had them loosely titled Loss, Rage and Magic but it didn't totally work because the mermaid story isn't rageful at all and a lot of the stories have some of all three of those things in them, so making up the mini titles felt false. Hopefully, within the structure of three parts, there is a certain kind of flow to the order, in that some of the more intense stories peak in the middle, and there's a lifting up with some of the later ones.
Do I feel a thematic unity to the groupings or to the stories as a whole? Tell me which one before I go off and make a huge list for you and embarrass myself.
With the stories as a whole. Not within the sections.
Themes in the stories as a whole—here are some: desire for connection, isolation from others, burden of caretaking, the ways loss gets expressed, suppression of passion, acting out of desires in a painful way, self-mutilation, deformity as a way to show loss or change, the connectedness of everyone, sex as an expression of loss rage obliteration connection or freedom, hmmmm, man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself—ha.
Hmmm. Kind of a weighty list. Plus I know I'm missing tons of them. But there's a start.
You mentioned one of your parents is a psychiatrist. It felt to me there was a lot of subconscious material in your stories. What's the relationship between your subconscious and your writing like?
Hooray! It's my favorite question on earth. Really. First I will say I'm just going to use the word unconscious instead of subconscious though I'm not sure I know the difference. But that's the word I'm used to. I talk about this a lot, with myself and other people. So I am glad for the question and appreciate your interest. I realized about a year ago that my parents, in a way, had a similar job: my dad, through psychiatry, is dealing with the unconscious and forging his way through other people's unawareness and bringing them into the air to look at, and my mom is delving into her own unconscious to make up dances. She's a dance teacher and choreographer. And I'm sort of the combo platter, in that psychiatry is so essentially verbal and well, duh, of course so is writing, and also I am like her in that it's all about creating from this inexplicable mysterious place. I think the human brain is so thrilling when viewed from this angle—that I am writing images without necessarily analyzing them and later, I can look at a certain sentence and the meaning is suddenly laid bare. This, I find, is like a miracle. It's like outer space exploration and the Bible. It's just such an amazing capacity that human beings have. How does the brain do that? How does free-association lead the way to emotional revelation? And yet, it DOES. So, that is where I think they link up: the use of metaphor is so innate in human beings, it's like a sixth sense, the need to make a comparison to describe experience. But how weird when you think about it, that we can't just name our experiences as they come, we are always, constantly making metaphors. And I think psychiatry is also all about metaphors or what I find most beautiful about it is metaphorical.
When I was a kid, I remember being terrified of thunder and talking to my dad about it, and at some point having the fear released when I admitted I was angry at someone, and this was like magic—I'd thought I was really truly scared of thunder. When my dad suggested I might be a little mad I thought, at first, he was insane. A friend of mine recently suggested that learning this so young, that metaphors can work this way, was like learning piano young, it gave me some kind of easy access, and it has affected my fiction since then. Because I was mad, and my dad was right, and I hadn't planned on being scared of thunder, I just was, and I made that up on my own, without planning, without a thought to how beautiful and simple it was. So. I think, even then, at age nine or whatever, I thought: this is the coolest g——d——thing. That is truly beautiful. And I'm sure on some level that is also what motivates my fiction for me. It seems the best work I do is when I am really allowing the unconscious to rule the page and then later I can go back and hack around and make sense of things but the queen of the story is that part of my brain and the stories wouldn't work, wouldn't move me, wouldn't have any power, unless they had a strong connection to my unconscious. That's why the whole concept of planning fiction is so ridiculous. I just think the more you loosen the reins, the more resonant the work can be. It's so funny when people put down art as not essential to a society, because it's like pretending that people don't have dreams. As if dreams don't reveal an entire subterranean world happening that must be acknowledged. Even those people who say they don't dream still do, they just forget them. People are so so so much more than just eating sleeping working machines. I am in awe of brains that way. Each one is like a little beautiful religious thing.
That is way too long. I'm not even sure if I really answered your question. But I answered something.
How do you get all that unconscious material down on the page without second-guessing it?
Mainly it's just sitting there and trusting that the connections are being made and that I don't have to work so hard but then anxiety creeps in, like what if it's not true? Or what if this time it won't work? And that needs to STOP. So the more I get reassurance from the world through various artists, etc., about the whole creative process, the better I feel. I once asked my mom for something like that and she said, "Oh, I have total faith," and I said, "In me?" and she said, "Yeah, but I meant in the whole process of making something, I have faith in that." Which I thought was great. That it wasn't even really faith in me specifically was comforting because it was more mysterious than even that, it was about trusting the art made by people since people have been. So then I try to write using the good old "follow your nose" approach, which for me means to write each day just what I feel like and not feel obligated or forced to try to make connections or make a point or anything. Trusting that the point is ingrained, which is always a better point anyway. A more complex point.
I just put a new screen saver on my computer with fish and spent a few minutes this morning looking at the virtual fish. They were soothing. And feeling like: that's okay. Fish are good to look at. If I want to look at fish, that can be more useful this exact moment than trying to figure out why this particular goddamn character is being such a pain in the ass. I have about ten signs above my computer saying "faith" in various synonym forms. Also, I think the way to get the unconscious revved up is to make a little contract with time, i.e. I have to sit at the desk for this long every day, a set amount, and that's just the law. I believe in laws like that. Then the unconscious knows what's what, it's like a teenager, and it will follow those laws. Eventually it'll start putting out. Uh oh. Now the teenager metaphor switched on me. But you get my point.
If the specifics, the discipline, is in place, then the rest will work. Within structure things loosen up. And here, the structure is just plain time on the chair. And that's where I think the sole thing that'll kick you out of your chair at that point is a crisis of faith and that's why it's so crucial to have support on that subject and to remind yourself constantly and crucially that that is the whole POINT, that writing can't be thought out and known, that something happens between the brain and the fingers that is different than thought. It just is. It's a new path. That's why it works. I can't think a story. I can tell one out loud and write one but I can't think one. It gets stopped in the first paragraph and then I digress. I'd have to voice it out to make it work. Wild, that. Why is that? I don't know. But it just makes me believe that the pathway, the wiring is different, and to think we can think through that wiring just isn't true.
Is there a particular state you find yourself in when you write, and if so, do you use any particular means to get to it?
Well, I wear that leopard skin hat on my head and do yoga chants and then light candles and then do bicep stretching.
No. No state. Right when I wake up. Closest to dreams I can get. Sleepy and bugged. Also I want to get it out of my way so I can have the rest of the day without writing guilt.
I'll do my best Charlie Rose here and ask about the novel mentioned on the jacket of your book. If you're not at a place with it where'd you'd like to comment, that's fine. Otherwise, I'd be interested in knowing what kind of direction it's going.
I don't want to talk about it concretely because it feels so weird, like footsteps all over my brain, my response is so visceral, like "what the hell is another person doing in here? Get out!" but I love to talk abstractly about novel-writing. Which is: I keep just following my nose on it and things are linking up but it's never like one day boom it is all clear where it's going. It's very slow, very little by little. I can see why people get discouraged so often writing novels, because they don't trust that the thing will evolve. I was not kidding about looking at the virtual fish—that is sometimes how I write my novel. Slow. I love it when it is not causing me total anxiety. I am trying my best to let it be what it is and also let myself write what I want and allow it to be what it is and also let myself write what I want and allow it to be different than the stories and also related, thematically or tonally or whatever, to them, too. There are a lot of numbers in it, bizarrely. And hardware and amputation. All that I will say.
You used the word visceral. I'd say that word could be applied to your whole book. The human body appears in your stories as something in a constant state of flux, something malleable and vaguely threatening, but also the source of a great deal of power. I'm wondering if this has arisen from your experience with dance? We've talked about the mental aspect of your work; let's talk about the physical. (Your mom side as opposed to your dad side)
I think I just like the human body so much as a whole landscape of everything—it seems like it's immediately resonant. So much happens. I am definitely fascinated by people's relationship to their bodies, what isn't their head. I could watch people dance for hours, like in college, just because it told me so much about them, how comfortable they were, how performative, all that. My mom's brother is a basketball coach and it's interesting that they both chose a path that is physically oriented. I'm not sure why, but my mom definitely uses her body when she talks, she acts like a dancer, and my uncle talks about basketball all the time, he is full of juicy details. I'm just interested in men and women and seeing and guessing their relationship with their body—it's so mysterious, and yet you can glean things from each person. It IS so powerful, that whole landscape—holds love, loss, pain, pleasure, self-destructiveness, kindness, some of that can be reflected pretty fast. I'm being vague. I can't think of a specific right now. It was interesting teaching elementary school—there's an interesting mix of female elementary school teachers—there were a LOT of sexy ones who were really into being overtly sexy which was interesting and then there were plenty of repressed ones who were really pretending like they were old ladies at age 25. Makes sense to me that you'd find both those types in extreme around kids … Interesting also—the kids responded to both but I think were less likely to be super huggy with the repressed ones. Makes sense too.
One day in seventh grade my class had a substitute teacher who made us write on note cards what qualities we looked for in a teacher. My best friend Epi Sedano wrote on his, "Likes to have fun with underage boys."
I'm sort of overloaded with lurid testimony at the moment. You keeping up on the Clinton investigation thing?
I know, this Clinton thing is intense. The heartbreaker is reading about Monica saying s—— like, "Why don't you ask me questions about myself?" Ugh. I think she really had hopes. But also, I don't want him to be impeached. It's just gross to see the weird power s—— that gets into the sex there.
A lot of your stories seem to veer off in unexpected directions. I'm interested in "Quiet Please" in particular [in which a librarian has sex in the library with every man in sight to deal with the death of her father]. What interested me wasn't necessarily the premise, but the place it found itself in the end. I know each story must come into the world in its own way, but do you find yourself starting with a particular scenario and taking off from there?
Yeah, I just was running with the premise of this librarian and her coping mechanism and the pain of that moment and then it veered quite organically on its own. Same with a story like "The Ring." It's like grabbing hold of a running horse. So much is about plain "feeling right"—I have a fair amount of false endings and the right one always feels good….
Source: Ryan Boudinot, "Interview with Aimee Bender," in www.PifMagazine.com/SID/498/, November 1998, pp. 1-5.
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.
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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