It was just two years ago that Aimee Bender published her first book, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, a collection of strange and beautiful stories about desire and loss. She follows it this month with a sedately surreal first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, about a young woman named Mona Gray who, since her father came down with a mysterious illness when she was 10, has been quitting everything she likes best. She quits ”right when desire makes an appearance“ and doesn‘t go back. She quits playing piano minutes after a triumphant first recital, taking her piano teacher aside: ”’Listen,‘ I said, urgent. ’You are never, ever, to set foot near this house again.‘“ She quits ballet class, too. And the track team, and going to movies. She nauseates herself by eating soap whenever she gets turned on, and quits having sex with her boyfriend. She quits the boyfriend and quits eating dessert. She quits everything but math, her one compulsion other than quitting itself: ”I tried to stop thinking about numbers but found myself, against my will, adding my steps and multiplying the people in the park against each other, knocking on wood in rhythm, counting endlessly . . .“
Mona gets a job, appropriately, teaching elementary school math. She buys an ax at the hardware store and fantasizes about cutting off limbs (”When someone asks at the hospital . . . when they’re trying to cure my incurable wound, when they question me in high tones what happened, I say in a clear voice: ‘I chopped myself down’“), then hangs the ax in her classroom and tells the kids it‘s a 7. Like the proverbial gun above the fireplace, the ax, of course, is eventually used, in a scene of high comedy and near-tragic mishap that precipitates the end of Mona’s flight from life. This is, it turns out, a coming-of-age story after all.
An Invisible Sign of My Own, in voice and in characterization, feels much like one of Bender‘s earlier stories, stretched by 200 pages. If the novel lacks the tautness that made those stories so successful, and if Mona’s quirks at times feel more like writerly adornments than integral character traits, Bender‘s cleverness, wit and imagination, and the quiet assurance of her voice, pick up much of the narrative slack. She creates a fairy-tale suburban world, the charms of which are in its details. Mona’s mother works for the tourist agency in a town that attracts no tourists, and busies herself ”making brochures called History of the Bug Shop or Evolution of Our Gas Station.“ The hardware-store owner wears a different number carved from wax each day on a string around his neck — in the 30s and 40s on good days, as low as 2 on very bad days. The elementary school science teacher has his children act out dread diseases to teach them health; Mona finds them writhing in the hallways, playing at scurvy and TB.
Bender‘s prose does not disappoint. It is, as always, superb — concise and daring, not a word wasted. ”I had been 10 years old,“ she writes, ”and quitting nothing at the time when my skin-doctor father walked into the living room one day in August with death perched on his shoulder as high and pleased as an organ grinder’s monkey.“ If we never learn quite why her father‘s illness precipitates a 10-year quitting jag, and the father never takes shape at all, similes like that one make such failings easy to ignore.
It is always worrisome when an author’s photograph appears on the front of a book, particularly when the book bills itself as fiction. The leap from back flap to front cover suggests that somewhere along the line, personality became more important than content or craft, a coup to which the author has assented. Michele Serros‘ second book, How To Be a Chicana Role Model, is fiction only in the thinnest sense; most of the stories here, many of which more closely approximate the personal essay a than the short story, are narrated by a Chicana in her late 20s from Oxnard named Michele Serros whose biography startlingly mirrors the author’s.
Part of the point of Serros‘ book, of course, is that as a Chicana, she can never simply be a writer, but is forced to play role model as well. How many white writers are constantly invited to elementary school auditoriums to lecture on the obstacles they’ve overcome? Serros explores her topic in a roundabout way through a series of lighthearted anecdotes. She subverts some stereotypes, admitting for instance that her favorite traditional meal is frozen chicken potpie, and plays with others, as in her in-depth analysis of irons and ethnicity: White folks don‘t have them, ”’cause as everyone knows, white people don‘t iron.“ Her friend Martha, on the other hand, has two shelves of irons, including one inherited from her blind aunt Ruthie with the settings in Braille.
Some chapters are funny, such as one chronicling time spent with ”the white Ticketmaster class“ as a Lollapalooza ”Road Poet“: ”Today they told us they can’t have any more poets on the main stage cuz too much trash is being thrown at them and it‘s damaging the equipment.“ Too many others, like one in which she reads her roommate’s diary, merely scamper about the more banal details of her life. How To Be Michele Serros might have been a better title after all.
Dean Seagrave, the narrator of the late James Robert Baker‘s aptly named last novel, Testosterone, barely waits until he’s off the first page to announce: ”I‘m a no-bullshit guy, and one angry queer, so don’t fuck with me because I‘m on a mission.“ To dispel any doubts that this might yet be a gentle, sensitive gay novel, Seagrave, roaring down the PCH in a rented Nissan, goes on: ”Attention all breeders: You’d better part for me like the Red fucking Sea, because I‘m plenty pissed-off, and if you get in my way, I’ll ram your rear-end and squash your little baby.“ Thus begins the final installment of Baker‘s trademark genre, the literary celebration of the Angry Gay Male.
The pace doesn’t slacken much in the next 200 pages. Nor does Seagrave‘s obsession- and methamphetamine-driven rage. His mission, alluded to above, is to track and kill his former lover, Pablo, who went out one evening to buy cigarettes and, without explanation, never came back. Testosterone is very much an L.A. novel; the text, saturated with film references, is ostensibly the transcription of audiotapes recorded by Seagrave while scouring the city for traces of Pablo. It is therefore almost entirely set behind the wheel of a car, from which Seagrave heatedly recounts his adventures, complete with real-time road-rage outbursts (”Come on, move it, fuckhead!“).
As Seagrave burns through the Westside, interrogating Pablo’s former lovers, assaulting Pablo‘s mom and an AIDS-crippled friend, Pablo is transformed from a merely cruel and manipulative ex to an ”emotional serial killer,“ a sadistic dognapper, a former Chilean secret policeman and torturer, and, eventually, a Palo Mayombe high priest who doesn’t blink at human sacrifice. The uncertainty, never resolved by Baker, as to whether Pablo is just such a monster or Seagrave is psychotically deluded, adds to the giddy anxiety of the narrative, which only builds as the book progresses. The rising tension makes Baker‘s darkly deadpan humor all the more effective: Seagrave regretfully brings his Glock (”rhymes with cock“) gun into a sex club because ”I just don’t think they‘d let me in with a machete.“
The Angry Gay Male genre bears disturbing similarities to the more generic Angry White Male genre. (Think Michael Douglas in Falling Down.) Seagrave is wearisomely nostalgic for the days ”when the gas and marijuana were cheap, when you could still experience freeway euphoria, when Southern California was a white boy’s utopia. The days of fun, fun, fun. Before the killers of color shot you in the head and took your T-bird away.“ If Testosterone is haunted by the specter of AIDS, rather than by defense-plant closings and working women, it is nonetheless studded with enough rants against ”beaners“ to make the stereotypical pissed-off white guy feel right at home, almost. (Still, it‘s fun to imagine Michael Douglas speaking Seagrave’s line ”I like a nice juicy cock in my mouth as much as the next man.“)
Gay men don‘t come off very well, either, especially if they have sex a lot. As in a teen slasher film, all the victims are promiscuous, and get what they deserve, though in this case it’s AIDS as often as a violent death. And Pablo‘s first crime, the only one we’re sure he‘s guilty of, was the betrayal of the monogamous coupling Seagrave idealizes — ”My goddamn boyfriend was a secret fucking sleazy little scumbag beaner tearoom queen.“ It is not, though, simple puritanism that drives Testosterone’s rage: Seagrave (and presumably Baker) is not so much squeamish about desire freely unleashed as he is disgusted by the dehumanization that he sees as accompanying compulsive, anonymous sex, particularly when it occurs under the shadow of HIV. Seagrave rages further at the cult of the body, the fetishism of youth, the aggressive conformity of urban gay life. There‘s much talk of ”clones“ and ”robots,“ even of ”reptiles.“ Scratch a delusional madman, Testosterone suggests, and you find a violently disappointed humanist.#
Note: Testosterone will not be available until October. (Sorry.)