Unlikely was the word. Fair enough. Considering the sort of thing with which I’m usually seen wandering off to lunch, the new Aimee Bender book does rather jar against expectations. Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle, prepared for publication Thomas Carlyle, edited by James Anthony Froude? Much more my usual.
But, Aimee Bender is just so good. When earlier today, in social media, I announced the arrival of her latest book, and my enthusiasm for it, I was met with a certain, perfectly understandable disbelief.
I’m reading this? Yes, yes I am.
Now, the other book I’m carrying around makes perfect sense, for me. The letters of Mrs. Thomas Carlyle are among the neglected pleasures of English literature; tart, intelligent, full of keen observation and good humor. I’m reading in them now because I’m already reading with great fascination, and some impatience, the last volume of James Anthony Froude’s magisterial biography of the lady’s husband. Jane comes out of that the better person of the married pair. (Thomas Carlyle would have agreed.) Reading the Letters and Memorials, in addition to supplementing the text of the biography, has proved to be a joy. Easily the best book of letters, other than her husband’s, that I’ve read since those of their friend, Edward Fitzgerald (translator of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.)
So, why Aimee Bender?
A few years ago, we organized a Halloween reading series here at the bookstore. Called it, “Spooky Stories,” and read, mostly, the usual sort of thing, like M. R. James, etc. It was a reading series for grown ups, of a Saturday afternoon, throughout the month of October, and so we read some fairly unlikely things as well. A young coworker read a story by Aimee Bender. It was a marvelous thing; unsettling, deceptively simple, haunting, funny. Since then, I’ve read every word Aimee Bender writes.
I don’t like modern fabulists much, as a rule. I’m not usually a fan of the self-consciously artless, or the arbitrarily ill-defined. There are of course masterful writers — Italo Calvino comes inevitably to mind — who make the most delicious hash of reality, but a writer like Calvino always does so in service of of larger questions; about memory, perception, and yes, the writing of fiction.
Aimee Bender has something of that same, sly gift for thinking through her nightmares, of inventing plausible consequences within seemingly mythical or fantastic scenarios. She’s funny. That counts for a lot. She’s also a devilishly clever woman, a disciplined writer and a surprisingly benign philosopher. Surprising, for me at least, because there’s a flippant disregard for the humane in a lot of the contemporary literature of this stripe; seems it’s embarrassing to be seen to care. She writes, sometimes, about some horrible things, but she’s never mean. rare quality, that, at least in contemporary literature.
So, yes. Aimee Bender’s The Color Master: Stories, just out from Doubleday, is traveling to lunch with me and Mrs. Carlyle today. And Bender is on my short list — my increasingly short list — of contemporary writers whose work I have to read as it’s published. Not because I much care anymore about books because they’re new, but because I care more than ever about the ones that are good.