“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
― Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
In an interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez I read way back in the late eighties, I remember the author saying that this one sentence started him on the road to literature. Until then, he had not known “people were allowed to write like this”!
This is what sets literature apart from all other arts – infinite freedom. The medium lets one create what one wants. Because the written narrative is a meeting of minds – the mind of the writer and that of the reader – imagination is the stage where they come together. They may watch two entirely different shows, and enjoy it all the same. The very abstractness of language proves its greatest strength.
Aimee Bender, in this collection of weird short stories, takes off from where Kafka stopped. Where in Kafka’s stories strange things happen in a normal world, here the strangeness is taken for granted. Kafka’s abnormal is the new normal.
A boy born to pumpkin-headed parents, with an electric iron for a head (Ironhead).
A universe in which little men are captured and kept as pets by big men (End of the Line).
A man with a set of keys for fingers (The Leading Man).
Potatoes who attain sentience (Dearth).
These are some of the inhabitants of Aimee’s literary universe.
The prose is economical to the level of terseness. There is no emotion: the narrative is akin to the way fairy tales are told. Some examples are given below:
Ten men go to ten doctors. All the doctors tell all the men that they only have two weeks left to live. Five men cry. Three men rage. One man smiles. The last man is silent, meditative. Okay, he says. He has no reaction. The raging men, upon meeting in the lobby, don’t know what to do with the man of no reaction. They fall upon him and kill him with their bare hands.
The doctor comes out of his office and apologizes, to the dead man.
The man went to the pet store to buy himself a little man to keep him company. The pet store was full of dogs with splotches and shy cats coy and the friendly people got dogs and the independent people got cats and this man looked around until in the back he found a cage inside of which was a miniature sofa and tiny TV and one small attractive brown-haired man, wearing a tweed suit. He looked at the price tag. The little man was expensive but the big man had a reliable job and thought this a worthy purchase.
(“End of the Line”)
Two of us hold Debbie down against the passenger door. Two others grab her feet so she can’t run or kick. The one with rings strikes Debbie several times-a few times hard in the stomach and one fist in the face so it will show, tomorrow. So she will have to explain. Debbie is screaming and crying.
We rip the skirt off with our bare hands and her underwear is almost too much to bear, with that pattern that is the knockoff of the expensive one, and a giant maxi pad weighing down the middle. We rip the skirt into pieces, which is what all the mothers have wanted to do, because it is rags anyway, it is a rag skirt, made of rags. The one with the rings slides her hands down Debbie’s arms and the rings she bought at the street fair cut lines into Debbie’s skin, where drizzles of blood rise freely to the surface.
Photo Courtesy: huffingtonpost
The boy was born with fingers shaped like keys. All except one, the pinkie on the right hand, had sharp ridges running along the inner length, and a point at the tip. They were made of flesh, with nerves and pores, but of a tougher texture, more hardened and specific. As a child, the boy had a difficult time learning to hold a pen and use scissors, but he was resilient and figured out his own method fast enough. His true task was to find the nine doors.
(“The Leading Man”)
By creating strange, unfamiliar worlds and divorcing emotion from the tale, the author succeeds in forcing the reader to look at the big picture. The structure of power within human communities (“End of the Line”), bullying (“Debbieland”), the outcast changeling (“Ironhead”), the stifling nature of religion (“Job’s Jobs”)… this method is Brechtian in its conception and execution, and works very well, as these stories are extremely short. I do not know whether they will hold up in a longer version such as a novel.
“End of the Line”, “Fruit and Words” and “Ironhead” turned out to be my personal favourites in this collection, but I loved all these weird vignettes. If you are a connoisseur of the strange, you will too.