Aimee Bender’s fictions are symbolic of human emotions and struggles largely analogized and formed through fairy-tale representations. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt is by and large in the same vein and is a collection of short stories that seems to suggest a narration by a teenage girl. On reading The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, in each of the short stories, the one common moral and that is one of trauma interlocked with pittance. The story about a young girl who comes home to find her dad carrying a backpack which seems to resemble a bag made of stones is intriguing. In the story, the curious girl who comes home from school asks her dad why he was carrying it wasn’t keeping it down. He replies in the negative and gives her the responsibility of carrying it on her back while he watched television with an air of contentment. The poor girl then carries the bag to school where while her classmates are busy studying, she sobs in a corner and is comforted by her teacher who gives her a tissue paper saying that she wanted to help her by giving her something which was far lighter than the backpack on her back. In a symbolic representation of the backpack made of stones as a father’s responsibility toward his family, Bender is trying to illustrate that at no point of time can he ignore this by putting it aside. This is why when the young daughter asks her father if she could keep it down, he replies in the negative. The young girl is unaware of what responsibilities mean and when she is asked to carry it with her; she understands the difficulty of it in life. While all her classmates are busy trying to do what children do in school; study, she is made to carry the responsibility of the house also to school.
This story alone makes readers wonder what Bender has in store for the readers. Through her characterization and plot juxtaposition, a reader is exposed to an explosion of imagination that hovers around common human experiences. In ‘The Rememberer,’ for example, one sees the dilapidation of human values as a young woman sees her boyfriend slowly devolving into an ape. The evolving process continues till he finally becomes a salamander and is let go. The narrator of the story, a young woman, reminiscences her last days with her boyfriend and how hurt she was to let him go. What one experiences from reading this story is about bonding and delicate human emotions, in addition to reading a lot of absurdity. This is not to say that Bender’s writing is boarded on absurdity, but the fact that she uses this quality to instigate her readers to continue reading her story and also using it as a platform to convey human emotions is interesting. In bringing to life absurd characters, Bender, using these absurd characters and instilling actions, morals and physical characteristics, is able to elucidate the ironies of common day life of human beings. In ‘Quiet Please,’ for example, a grief-stricken librarian spends most of her time sleeping with hordes of patrons, while in ‘Call My Name,’ a young woman follows a man home with hopes of sleeping with him. In ‘What You Left in the Ditch,’ a young woman’s trauma’s is exposed when her husband, comes back from the army with missing lips. In visualizing a face without lips is grotesque, and when that happens to be that of a husband, it can be nerve-wrecking for a wife, and what follows in the life of the wife is what the story talks about. In portraying the predicaments faced by the woman, physically, emotionally and mentally, Bender wants her readers to understand; human reactions to an unexpected situation followed by its repercussions.
Milne (2007), talking about Bender’s short story, ‘The Rememberer,’ says that it was first published in the Missouri Review in the fall of 1997. In 1998, she included this story in her collection of short stories, called, ‘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,” says Milne (2007). In discussing ‘The Rememberer’ Milne says that while the story is “bizarre, it is placed in a realistic setting, and the juxtaposition of the ordinary with the bizarre is a hallmark of magical realism, a modern literary genre used by authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and Angela Carter.” In her analysis of the story, Milne (2007) says that “though the events are fictional, the themes are relevant to the real world.” In analyzing some of the stories discussed in the paper so far, one sees a young daughter take on the responsibilities of her father through the portrayal of a backpack made of stones, while in ‘What You Left in the Ditch; its the wife’s desperate and callous inability to confront reality that forces her to seek an alternative to vent her exasperation that forces her to seek another man to soothe her inner feelings and nerve. And in ‘The Rememberer,’ Bender looks at the regression of a loved one that brings about lose and detachment.
Carney (2012) in describing Bender’s fictions, calls it “fairy tales,” with recurring descriptors that are “magical, surreal, phantasmagoric, and bizarre.” She also quotes another critic who refers to Bender’s short stories as “contemporary fairy tales, cushioned by goofy humor and a deep tenderness for her characters.” “Bender herself,” says Carney (2012), “acknowledges her affinity with fairy tales, often citing the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen as formative literary influences.” Bender’s works are imbued with fairy-tale ethos, but its presence is more obliquely felt, continues Carney. According to Carney (2012), for Bender’s, “her purpose of characterization is not to parody fairy-tale clichés or to interrogate its ideological underpinnings, particularly in the areas of gender and class, but to employ fairy-tale motifs and structural patterns to explore how humans negotiate their strange and incomprehensible worlds: a magical dress serves as a cover for a woman~ insecurity and self-loathing, an amputation points to a character~ emotional fragility, and a child born with a grotesque malformation becomes an occasion for exposing cruelty and alienation.”
Zipes (2002), in Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales, says that Bender deserves more attention because she was successful in “avoiding the trap of producing formulaic fiction ‘for the market’ like so many other writers who adopted fairy-tale writings.” For Zipes, Bender was a writer for whom “fairy tales had become more charged with neurotic intensity and was more layered” and whose short stories combined “elements of the folk tale, magic realism, the grotesque, and the macabre that ruptures readers' expectations.” This is practically true as Bender used all kinds of characters to instill that element of unsuspecting irony which we as human beings, have come to acknowledge as part and parcel of human existence. Be it in love, fear, detachment, responsibility or grief, these elements were synonymous of human existence. Carney (2012), in studying Bender’s works says that she explored Bender’s ‘neurotic’ and ‘layered’ additions that made to the fairytale corpus. These, she says, fell into four broad categories; “appropriation of conventional form, inter-textual use of common themes and motifs, an exploradon of the fairy tales paradigm of family dynamics, and finally, the invention of fresh autonomous tales.” Her short stories contain these familiar fairy-tale elements which she uses cleverly by merging them into her fictions to chart the emotional, social, and cultural ethos her characters experience in an absurd climate.
However, Bender style of writing had her series of detractors too. While Bender's stories replicated the presumed conciseness of the fairy-tale genre, Elizabeth Harries objected to this, and taking issue with Walter Benjamin, claims that fairy tales are praiseworthy for their ‘chaste compactness.’ Harries goes on to demonstrate this by saying that “the French conteuses' stories were neither chaste nor compact” Carney (2012). All said and done, most notable “fairy-tales are relatively short, and so is Bender’s, not just in the number of pages but in their narrative economy: detail is not teased out, and there is little modification, amplification, or digression,” she ended.
In ‘What You Left in the Ditch,’ for example, Mary is overwhelmed on seeing her disfigured husband who just got back from the war, and while she is angry by her thoughts, she is also confused and alienated from his wartime experiences. She tries very hard to suppress these concerns, lest her emotions traumatize her husband, she expresses her feelings solemnly. Her frivolous attempt to sleep with another man is an attempt to free her from the harsh reality that she could never even think of sleeping with a man who was disfigured. However, by the end of the story, Mary attempts to reestablish an emotional relationship with her husband; “She wanted to know him again, to enter the nightmare and be in there with him, to fight the demons with her own good weapons. She wanted to join him, but the chair was too small and his brain was his only and all she saw in the ditch were sweaters and a too light sky.” The human mind is full of intricacies and by trying to establish the lost love with her husband, Mary was willing to accept him the way he was. Talking of fairy-tales, “Bender refuses her readers the proverbial fairy-tale ending, focusing on her characters’ faltering quests rather than facile resolutions,” ended Carney (2012). She had to; otherwise the plot would have been lost to her readers. In trying to portray life as it seemed to her, she was not willing to bend the rules to make her stories fairy-takes, she instead wanted her characters to speak about life and its challenges facing man.
Aimee Bender’s fictions are symbolic of human emotions and struggles largely analogized and formed through fairy-tale representations. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt is by and large in the same vein and is a collection of short stories that seems to suggest a narration by a teenage girl. On reading The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, in each of the short stories, the one common moral and that is one of trauma interlocked with pittance. Through the course of analyzing her short stories, it was found that while Bender may have used the fairy-tale style of writing her stories, she used it to glorify the emancipating society that called itself life. There was full of meanings in her stories and it was meant for her readers to understand them through her characters.
Carney, J, (2012), Aimee Bender's Fiction and the Intertextual Ingestion of Fairy Tales, Marvels & Tales, Wayne State University Press, 26(2), p.221-239, 300, ISSN 15214281
Harries, E, (2001), Twice Upon A Time: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP
Milne, I, M, Ed., (2013), Overview: The Rememberer,’ Short Stories for Students, Vol.25, Detroit: Gale, Literature Resource Center, Web, Retrieved December 10, 2013, from http://go.galegroup.com, Document Number: GALE|H1430006471
Zipes, J, (2002), Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales, 2nd ed. Lexington: UP of Kentucky