Book Review by Heidi Simmons

“The Girl in the Flammable Skirt”
Aimee Bender

I started this summer’s short story series with the notion that what makes short stories appealing to read, besides the length, is that they don’t necessarily follow simple literary requirements such as a beginning, middle and end. In Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (Anchor Books, 184 pages) almost all literary rules are broken, including grammatical.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt is Bender’s first collection of short stories. Many in the collection were originally published in literary journals and magazines. For some authors, a successful short story collection leads to book deals. Bender has since written two novels, a novella and another short story collection. This book, Bender’s first work, stands out for its surreal and bizarre tales of love and life.

Divided into three parts, containing a total of16 stories, Bender creates a world that has familiar characters and recognizable places. However, it’s what happens in these places to these characters that is so imaginative and frankly, often insane.

The first story in Part One, titled Remember, is about a boyfriend who is de-evolving. As the character Annie explains in the first sentence, “My lover is experiencing reverse evolution.” After becoming an ape and “shedding a million years a day,” Ben has become a sea turtle.

Ben’s friends and co-workers call to ask his girlfriend Annie, what happened? She tells them Ben is sick and not to call. Her tears add to the salt water in which he swims. Annie remembers the magical and beautiful times they shared. Their last conversation Ben says: “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.” Annie continues to love Ben until she sets him free hoping one day he may come back as a new man.

In Part Two, the story, Quiet Please, a librarian learns her father died, then goes to work and has sex with men. She uses sex to kill the pain inside. The narrator says: “The librarian, on this day, the day of her father’s death, is overwhelmed by an appetite she has never felt before and she waits for another one of them to approach her desk.” Next paragraph is one sentence: “It takes five minutes.”

The librarian justifies her behavior believing it fulfills a fantasy for the men. Though this story is a lurid tale of a woman who uses men, the tone changes when a strongman from the nearby circus comes into the library but doesn’t have a librarian fantasy. “The muscleman loves how his shoulders feel, the weight of something important, a life, on his back.”

My favorite in the collection is in Part Three. Loser tells the story of a child whose parents were drowned in the ocean while trying to save one another as he slept on the beach. Adopted and raised by the community, the young man discovers he has a gift for finding things: A hairbrush, keys, and a basketball. The community starts to doubt his ability, accusing him of stealing the objects just so can be a hero when he finds them.

When a woman’s little boy is kidnapped, she asks the young man to find her son. The young man had only found lost objects, never anything stolen and never a person. Once the woman tells the police what her son was wearing, the young man concentrates on the boy’s blue shirt and is able to locate and rescue him.

The young man goes back to his tiny home and considers how fortunate he was that there was an object to focus on that lead to the boy’s discovery. “Concentrate hard, he thought. Where are you? Everything felt blank and quiet. He couldn’t feel a tug. He squeezed his eyes shut and let the question bubble up: Where did you go? Come find me. I’m over here. Come find me.” The last line: “If he listened hard enough, he thought he could hear the waves hitting.”

The final story in the book is the book’s title, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. A young girl copes with the weight of her father’s illness and imminent death. When she carries the burden to school in the form of a solid rock backpack, her teacher hands her a Kleenex, the young girl says: “I’m not crying, I told her. I know, she said, touching my wrist. I just wanted to show you something light.”

There are thematic interludes. One where two research rats discuss their treatment after eating piles sugar and another with a boy named Paul who the young girl keeps in her closet because his parents are drunks. At the hospital, her father’s on his deathbed and she says: “I have to pray twice as hard. In the little hospital church I am the only one praying with my jaw clenched and my hands in fists knocking on the pew. Maybe they think I’m knocking on God’s door, tap tap tap. Maybe I am.”

She then recalls a story of a girl whose skirt catches fire as she dances and wonders if the girl thought she had done it herself? “With the amazing turns of her hips, and the warmth of the music inside her, did she believe, for even one glorious second, that her passion had arrived?”

Author Binder may not be everybody’s literary cup of tea. Although some stories are whimsical and magical, they are not for children. However, there is a childlike quality and innocence to many of her characters. There are stories I have read several times but still cannot find a theme or any particular significance in there meaning. But they are stimulating, provocative and unpredictable. They often meander to dark places and lead to bizarre discoveries. These stories give the reader a quick glimpse into something different, yet they are very close to home. Bender has mastered the power and potential of the short story. There are no rules. It’s what makes short stories such a surprise and delight.