AN INVISIBLE SIGN OF MY OWN By Aimee Bender Doubleday 243 pp., $22.95
Dark themes related with empathy, quirky wit, and unmistakable talent constitute the paradoxical first novel of Aimee Bender, already noted for her skill in short-story telling. "An Invisible Sign of My Own" opens the door on the deeply troubled, private anguish of its characters as seen through the eyes of the heroine-narrator, a superstitious young woman who is at once winning and terrifying.
Mona Gray, at 19, has quit everything she's ever loved except math. Piano, running, atlases, egg salad, and movies are only a few of the severed items. "I quit breathing one evening until my lungs overruled." She eats soap to overcome the onset of love or sexual attraction.
Only numbers and their predictable order and logic satisfy and calm her. This book is about the fear of life's inconstancy and the crazy attempts we make to maintain the status quo rather than risk change.
The novel begins with Mona's colloquial voice recounting a story told her by her father, a parable in which an immortal kingdom suffers overcrowding and solves the problem through sacrificial murder and dismemberment. The rest of the book is an extension of these motifs.
Bender's cast of unique characters, most of them walking wounded, is rich with both children and adults who are finding life more than they can bear. Mona's father inexplicably drops out when she is 10 by contracting a mysterious, static disease. This so scares young Mona that she begins building a wall of impenetrable weirdness around herself, forever protected from life's vagaries. She incessantly knocks on wood in compulsive, counted rhythms to put down her fears and is obsessed with the mortality of those around her. Mona's would-be boyfriend, a science teacher, is not without his own bizarre manifestations as he teaches Hands-On Health by having his young charges act out the symptoms of various diseases.
One of the most disturbing, yet touching, aspects of the book is Mona's work with children as a math teacher at the local elementary school. We watch her dealing with her maladjusted charges, assuming a normalcy and success that is never there, missing every opportunity to help them until it is almost too late.
The students include a boy who brings his father's amputated arm, encased in glass for mantel display, as an example of the number one for the Numbers and Materials lessons, and a little girl whose mother is dying who wears an intravenous tube around her head to demonstrate zero. Often seeming more adult than the stumbling Mona, this child attaches herself to her teacher, and we agonize over the growing terror of death with which she struggles until the book's turning point.
Having psychotic Mona as a teacher seems an unfair blow to the innocency and fragility of childhood, especially when it brings on a stunning and bloody climax of student meltdown, sickeningly foreshadowed by Mona's own fantasies of dismemberment. The pat, cuddly resolution that follows this mayhem seems strangely unconnected with all the abnormality preceding it and is a disservice to Bender's looming tapestry.
Displaying the considerable gifts of a natural writer, Bender constantly draws us into Mona's distressed world with surprising humor and dazzling, original description- "he kissed silver into the back of my neck" - simultaneously making us cringe from the smothering amount of disturbed behavior.
I wish Bender could deliver herself in less depressing ways of both her clear writing ability and keen understanding of human nature. We expend too much energy dreading the horror that comes with so much unrelenting dysfunction.
*Verity Ludgate-Fraser is chairman of the English department at the Berkeley Hall School in Los Angeles.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society