Author Aimee Bender is renowned for her subversive approach to storytelling, and her new collection of short stories doesn’t disappoint. Like her previous collections, “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” and “Willful Creatures,” “The Color Master” explores transgressions of custom, where characters — most often women — dare to step outside their expected roles, and transgressions of reality, where she employs subtle surrealism to create moments of vivid tension.
Bender’s women wield great power, and the surprising intensity of this power often scares them. In “On a Saturday Afternoon,” the narrator gracefully coerces two men she has lured back to her apartment into fulfilling her voyeuristic fantasy. “They said they would do what I asked them to,” she muses, “That’s the agreement.” And although it’s clear that their consent was contingent on reciprocation, she’s intent on remaining in “[t]he amazing space created for me when there is nothing demanded or seen.” In “Bad Return,” Claire is unnerved by her inner thoughts upon entering a stranger’s home. “I still felt that if anyone were at risk, it was actually him; I’d trusted what I read about following my own fear instinct, and instead of feeling fear, what I felt as a slight thrill or even a flicker of aggression, like I might harm him, like he should be cautious about inviting me up.”
Louanne, the star of “Lemonade,” is relentlessly upbeat, even as she struggles to navigate the intricacies of teenage socialization in a drama that unfolds throughout the Beverly Hills Shopping Center. Eager, earnest, and a believer in the power of positivity, Louanne is no match for the effortless charisma of Nature, a classmate who steals away a potential new friend. Abandoned on a bench in the middle of the mall, a passerby asks if she is lost. “Oh no,” Louanne replies, “I am extremely found.” Her irrepressibility is endearing, and even in defeat she looks for ways to brighten up her world. “The people were all busy in their cars, listening to the radio, so there was no one to smile at, so I just sent my love to the traffic lights. No one ever appreciates them, all day long, working so hard to turn red and yellow and green, right in time with us to make sure we don’t crash into each other.”
“The Devourings” is a warped fairy tale that focuses on a mixed marriage between a human woman and an ogre. Though the premise could easily have been the set up for a winking farce, Bender instead uses it to examine the resilience of love in the face of tragedy, and the fantastic elements quickly become secondary to a beautiful and turbulent romance. Still, Bender makes room for an intriguing digression. In her novel, “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake,” she imagined that the taste of the titular dessert could communicate the emotions of its baker. “The Devourings” features another magical cake — this time, an immortal one that endlessly replenishes itself. Incapable of being totally consumed, the cake begins to overtake the story itself in a startling and immensely entertaining tangent.
That’s what makes Bender’s stories so fun — the thought that at any moment, she could break off into new, uncharted territory and make it seem so natural, so completely reasonable to spend a few pages waxing poetic about the plight of a cake, and with enough skill to make the reader actually care about the fate of an inanimate confection. Full of humor, wit, and pathos, “The Color Master” is the work of a writer with a strong, distinctive point of view, and with enough confidence to let it lead her into fresh and exciting places.