Many of the stories in Aimee Bender's debut collection are wonderful in theory, and some of them are beautifully executed. Bender shows a fondness for a kind of magic realism jumbled with urban myth, and sometimes her inventiveness has a freewheeling charm. In "Drunken Mimi," a high-school mermaid (who hides her tail under long skirts and whose hair comes equipped with nerve endings) falls for another oddball, the campus imp. In "The Rememberer," a woman watches as her lover undergoes a mysterious reverse evolution, turning first into an ape, eventually into a sea turtle and finally into a salamander whom she has no choice but to release into the sea. Bender captures with sensitivity and eloquence how much the woman misses him, as a man and a lover: "Sometimes I think he'll wash up on shore. A naked man with a startled look. Who has been to history and back. I keep my eyes on the newspaper. I make sure my phone number is listed ... I feed the birds outside and 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."
Bender's ear is at times undeniably musical. But she also has a weakness for spelling out too much of the obvious. "The Rememberer" might have been simply a delicate story about the elusiveness of love, and the weight of missing someone, if Bender hadn't taken such great pains to spell out what the man, before he devolved, was thinking: "Annie, don't you see? We're all getting too smart. Our brains are just getting bigger and bigger, and the world dries up and dies when there's too much thought and not enough heart." Instead of a character, Bender has given us a spokesman, and other stories suffer from similar heavy-handedness. In "Marzipan," a man develops a basketball-size hole in his stomach after his father dies, and his wife, at 43, gives birth to a baby who isn't a baby at all but her own mother, who'd died not long before. Symbolism, anyone?
And sometimes you can practically hear Bender straining to set up dramatic catalysts for her characters' epiphanies. In "Skinless," a counselor at a home for runaway teens, who is Jewish, encounters a troubled but treacherous young man at the facility, an obvious anti-Semite who has carved a swastika into his bedstead. The swastika bothers her, naturally. Yet later, she allows herself to be blindfolded (and led around) by the boy in a game of "trust" -- never mind that the home happens to be situated near some giant, steep cliffs. Reading fiction always requires some suspension of disbelief, but you can't help wondering what kind of counselor would allow herself to be blindfolded by a such a clearly messed-up lad. Bender seems merely to have manufactured an artificially dangerous situation for her heroine just to make her point, and it's so jarringly blatant that it throws you out of the story. It's just one example of why "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt" never quite ignites.