The Unbearable Lightness of Bender

January 3, 2011 — Leave a comment

For  me, Aimee Bender‘s fiction works a little something like this:

Salginatobel Bridge, Robert Maillart 1930

Her sentences are pristine and precise, graceful, unadorned, and apparently effortless, but they straddle expanses and hold impossible weights.

Like the Salginatobel Bridge above, which Alain de Botton describes thus: “Maillart’s bridge resembles a lithe athlete who leaps without ceremony and bows demurely to his audience before leaving the stage . . . making its achievement look effortless.” (The Architecture of Happiness, 206)

De Botton contrasts the Salginatobel bridge with a bulkier suspension bridge, which, he says, is more like “a stocky middle-aged man who hoists up his trousers . . . before making a jump between two points” (205-6):

Clifton Suspension Bridge, Isambard Brunel 1864

(Yeah, so I’ve been reading architecture books along with fiction over the break.)

Usually the contrast between the two bridges is illustrative of Aimee Bender’s prose compared with, say, Henry James’s. But when I compare Bender’s new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, to her last story collection, Willful Creatures, it is her novel that begins to look like the suspension bridge, and the delicate, sad-burdened stories that, with fewer materials, span the wider gulf.

I don’t necessarily blame this on Bender, whose premise and sentences are just as fabulist and fabulous as always, I blame it on the novel – a bulkier, trouser-hoisting form. And I blame it on a publishing culture that celebrates novels more than stories. I am shocked (sort of) to discover, upon creating links to Bender’s two books that I just mentioned, that Lemon Cake has 196 customer reviews while Willful Creatures has only 14. I’ll have to post a review and make it a full 15.

But for now, I have to catch the opening episode of The Bachelor!


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