By Nick Hinton
Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt is a collection of short stories about real people with real emotions who inhabit some very strange worlds. A man evolves backwards in front of his girlfriend’s eyes, an imp meets a mermaid in high school, a boy can concentrate to find lost objects, and two girls in a small town have hands made of fire and ice. Bender is able to make these stories meaningful, even though they are completely outside the realm of the everyday, by making her narrators have strong, authoritative voices. Bender also will ground her characters by providing them with something familiar, or she throws those characters headfirst into their tumultuous lives by removing the comfort of the familiar.
The worlds of the stories in this collection are weird to say the least, and could easily come off as gimmicky. But Bender uses an authoritative voice in each case to establish that strange things are happening, but the weirdness isn’t where the heart of the story lies. She uses the oddity to emphasize what the real story is, which is what gives those stories meaning. “Loser” is a story about trying to find your place in the world when you are lost. The central character in “Loser” is an orphan who has the ability to find lost objects, but it rises above being a story about the finding of the objects and is instead a story about the orphan trying to find his place in the world when he is lost himself. It begins with: “Once there was an orphan who had a knack for finding lost things.” He has this ability; it’s out there, now the story can begin. He is able to use his gift to find a kidnapped boy, and because he is an orphan he feels the need to make a connection with this boy. But he can’t, and he ends up just as lost as he was to begin with. The strangeness improves the story by making the orphan able to find everything except what he is longing for.
One way Bender makes these fantastic stories realistic is by how the characters treat the comfort of the familiar. In “Quiet Please” a librarian’s father, who she hated, has died. She has many conflicting emotions about her father’s death and finds the whole situation overwhelming. There is one line in “Quiet Please” which perfectly summed up the story for me. “Her father’s funeral is in one day. It is important that there is quiet in a library.” She is unsure of how to react to the news of her father’s death, but quiet in the library is a source of comfort to her. It anchors her in this time of upheaval, which is a very true to life reaction. In “What You Left in the Ditch” Mary’s husband comes back from war without lips. She took comfort in having a normal husband with lips, and the loss of them has a profound effect on her. In this story her husband Steven’s face is the familiar, and when he comes home that is taken from her. Once he has no lips, the boy at the grocery store becomes that much more appealing to her because he is now more familiar than her own husband. The familiar, which kept the librarian’s head above water during the time of her father’s death, now causes friction in Mary’s life because it has been taken from her. By using this relationship with the familiar Bender is able to make these whimsical stories still carry human weight.
The Girl in the Flammable Skirt contains stories which, if written poorly, would barely pass for a B-movie plot. However, Bender is a more adept storyteller than that, and she infuses these stories with meaning and truly human characters. She accomplishes this by using the strangeness of her stories to connect them to real life in a meaningful way. I have made the mistake of writing strange stories for their own sake in the past, and reading The Girl in the Flammable Skirt is a good example of how to take weirdness and make compelling stories with it.