★★★☆☆, Book Reviews

Book Review: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

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The Girl in the Flammable Skirt
by Aimee Bender
★★★☆☆

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A grief-stricken librarian decides to have sex with every man who enters her library. A half-mad, unbearably beautiful heiress follows a strange man home, seeking total sexual abandon: He only wants to watch game shows. A woman falls in love with a hunchback; when his deformity turns out to be a prosthesis, she leaves him. A wife whose husband has just returned from the war struggles with the heartrending question: Can she still love a man who has no lips?

Aimee Bender’s stories portray a world twisted on its axis, a place of unconvention that resembles nothing so much as real life, in all its grotesque, beautiful glory. From the first line of each tale she lets us know she is telling a story, but the moral is never quite what we expect. Bender’s prose is glorious: musical and colloquial, inimitable and heartrending.

Here are stories of men and women whose lives are shaped–and sometimes twisted–by the power of extraordinary desires, erotic and otherwise. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt is the debut of a major American writer. (Goodreads)

I was recommended this book by a professor during a discussion about magical realism. Now, I love me some magical realism. In fact, I adore it. Give me all the Neil Gaiman and Karen Russell and let me drown in their worlds. Aimee Bender, though… I don’t know. There’s something about her writing style that just doesn’t work for me. There’s some interesting ideas in this collection of short stories, but a lot of it just seems like weird for weird’s sake, and that’s just not my cup of tea. I mean, there’s a story about a guy who wakes up with a hole in his stomach and then his wife gives birth to her mother. Sure, that’s weird, but it just feels more like a pointless kind of weird. There’s no real story behind it. There’s no character development or sense of story or intrigue – unless you count the constant thought of “why is this happening?” (We never find out 🙄) – and that’s a big deal-breaker for me. There’s also a lot of sexual aspects in some of the stories that don’t seem to have much of a point to them. This style of writing might work for some people, but for me, I just need more.

On the plus side, this is a very quick read. The stories are short, in more than one way. They range from 4-20 pages in length, but what really gets me is the sentence structure. There’s a lot of short, choppy sentences. Somehow, even the longer sentences feel like short sentences. It’s very strange and straightforward. It reminds me a little of Raymond Carver. I’ve read a short story collection by Carver and couldn’t decide how I felt about him, even after I finished the book, because of his unique writing style, and I feel similarly towards Bender because of her odd style.

Despite all this, there were a few stories I did enjoy:

  • Fugue : A tale with interlocking story lines about an unhappy wife, a man who deliberately screws up at his job, and two roommates.
  • The Healer : “There were two mutant girls in the town: one had a hand made of fire and the other had a hand made of ice.” (First sentence of the story)
  • Loser : A story about an orphan boy who finds lost things by sensing them.

These particular stories felt much more satisfying than the others, largely because there was more to them than just their weird factor. The weirdness felt like an actual part of the story rather than just being thrown in as an attempt at making things interesting (unlike the stomach hole story).

Though the writing feels simple and not-terribly-special a lot of the time, Bender does occasionally have an interesting way of saying things. I don’t know if this would make me want to read more of her works in the future, but I can certainly appreciate it when I come across it. This excerpt from the final story in the collection is probably my favorite instance of this:

When I came home from school for lunch my father was wearing a backpack made of stone. Takke that off, I told him, that’s far too heavy for you. So he gave it to me. . . I slogged back to school with it on and smushed myself and the backpack into a desk and the teacher sat down beside me while the other kids were doing their math. It’s so heavy, I said, everything feels very heavy right now. She brought me a Kleenex. I’m not crying, I told her. I know, she said, touching my wrist. I just wanted to show you something light.

There are a few examples of this in her collection, but it’s not quite enough to make me interested in reading more of her work. It’s a shame, because some of her stories feel like they should be something I’d like, but I don’t know, they just don’t really work for me.

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