An Invisible Sign of My Own

An Invisible Sign of My Own

by Aimee Bender

Published by Doubleday

242 pages, 2000

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Surreal Signs

Reviewed by Sienna Powers


In her first novel, Aimee Bender describes a surreal world where a father can be deathly ill with nothing at all and where, for her 20th birthday, a girl might buy herself an ax, because, "Before I saw it, shining on the wall of the hardware store like a lover made from steel and wood, I'd given up completely on the birthday celebration."

Early in An Invisible Sign of My Own, Mona Gray is given a job as a math teacher at her local school. This despite the fact that she is still very young -- under 20 when she receives this appointment -- and has no apparent qualifications beyond an almost (or perhaps not even almost) neurotic love of math:

I tried to stop thinking about numbers but found myself, against my will, adding my steps and multiplying the people in the park against one another, knocking on wood in a careful rhythm, counting endlessly: sheep, students, parents, age, heartbeats. Mix up some numbers and signs, and you get an equation for the way the wind shifts or an axiom for the movement of water, or the height of someone, or for how skin feels. You can account for softness. You can explain everything.

Mona's withdrawal from her own life and immersion into a world made entirely of things that can be ordered stems apparently and directly from her father's diagnoses with a weird illness that is never explained. From our view -- a view we are given entirely through Mona's eyes -- there's nothing wrong with her father except everything. And physically, the only real manifestation of this illness that we see is that he has faded since he contracted the mysterious whatever-it-is when Mona was a child.

The year of my tenth birthday was when my father got sick, and that's when I started to quit.

The young Mona quits everything: the stuff she loves and the stuff she hates and stuff she starts just so she can, ultimately, give it up:

I quit dessert to see if I could do it -- of course I could; I quit breathing one evening until my lungs overruled; I quit touching my skin, sleeping with both hands under the pillow. When no one was home, I tied ropes around the piano, so that it would take me thirty minutes with scissors to get back to that minuet. Then I hid all the scissors.

What emerges is either a gently told portrait of deep disturbance or the fairytale-like recountings from some universe that's a great deal like ours but isn't ours, after all. For all of the clues that Bender gives us it could be either or neither but, in the end, it doesn't matter: Bender's prose is dark and deeply enchanting. Her main character likable even with all of her foibles (she eats soap and is afraid of sex, just for starters). When all is said and done, it's enough to have taken this ride into Bender's fertile imagination and enjoyed her humorous and carefully coifed prose.

An Invisible Sign of My Own is a worthy followup to Bender's first book-length work, the highly acclaimed collection of short stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. | October 2000


Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.