In his craft essay, “The Perfect Gerbil,” George Saunders says that a successful writer has to keep things moving in a story like a Hot Wheels car through those little gas stations around a circular track. You remember them. Your car had to get to the next one so it could keep going. Pew. Pew. Pew. Around the circle. Every delicious detail, each unexpected surprise propels you to the end of the story, Saunders says; it keeps your brain happy because you want to see what happens next. If you think about it, this Saunders principle applies to most of the arts: dance, theater, music. You need satisfying (and unexpected) payoffs. Discovery is the great joy of reading, of enjoying art: letting yourself enter someone else’s creation.
Aimee Bender’s The Color Master is rife with these satisfying and unexpected details, the joyfully weird take for which she’s become known. As in her other collections, Bender creates worlds that stretch human traits beyond their humanness, and in so doing, she shines light on our obsessions, our fears, and our desire to discover meaning in our own existence. Here is the parable of a woman whose hair shines like wheat; the story of a surgeon, deft hands mending tigers split open by a mysterious force in the jungle; the somber tale of a “Fake Nazi” who inspires a secretary’s personal journey to find truth; the family’s attempt to understand why their house fills mysteriously with objects they do not buy. While Bender writes of otherworldly beings and ogre wives, she weaves together threads of humanity. Her use of the magical allows her closer proximity to the emotional.
Bender spins fables and myth for much of The Color Master, and the opening story, “Appleless,” is a nod to the fact that she seems to know it’s in our nature to seek meaning within them. “We watch her walk, and she’s slow and proud,” says the apple-eater, watching the wheat girl leave after she’s been pawed, kissed, kneaded. “[B]ut none of us can possibly catch her […] she gets smaller and smaller on the horizon.” With this short tale of appetite in the orchard, Bender leads us into the rest of her collection—wanting more. “Our stomachs rumble, hungry.”
Bender takes the fairytale, the fable, the myth, and renders them for a modern audience. The title story, “The Color Master,” offers a new perspective on a classical fable, yet it stands alone as a story about intention, about creation, and contrasts. “Color is nothing unless next to other colors, the Color Master told us all the time. Color does not exist alone.” In “The Color Master,” Bender blends the quirks of modern conventions like visualization seminars with the stuff of classical fairytales: kings and queens and peasants and donkeys. Here, also, is a synesthetic exploration of the intent of creation, of what else goes into one’s craft, similar to themes in Bender’s novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Where in Lemon Cake, characters were unaware of the emotion that flavored the food they cooked, here the Color Master chooses the emotion to color a garment. Anger is the piercing color of sky. Death is blue-purple. Bender blurs lines of emotion, color, creation and purpose. In so doing she asks questions about our intent in the real world.
Because The Color Master is framed by the supernatural, Bender’s departures from the mythical world are notable, particularly the final story of Part I, “On a Saturday Afternoon,” the stark, real, and yet still emotionally lush description of a would-be-threesome-turned-twosome. Bender’s narrator in “Afternoon,” the sole woman in the story, speaks a fantasy out into the world one night in July as they sit on the stoop. An afternoon of sexual exploration follows. Here are humans acting as humans, and yet the story has the aura of a spell:
“The sun slants through the curtains as their two hands reach over and they sort of grab at first but then relax. They explore the knuckles, the wrists, the elbows. They don’t giggle, but there is some nervous shifting, some more drinking from beers. Wet barley lips.”
Bender writes “Afternoon” with heady, beer-buzzed sexual tension. Even in her more realistic fiction, she captures something otherworldly about the human experience, something about the electrical energy that exists in the space between us.
Guilt, racism, consumerism, change, fantasy, and faith all factor into Bender’s characters’ lives, whether they are human or not quite. Marital relationships play key roles in “Red Ribbon,” the story of a wife becoming consumed by the fantasy she and her husband create, and “The Devourings,” the story of an ogre husband who mistakenly eats his own half-human children. “The Doctor and the Rabbi” explores a profoundly close relationship between the two, one that stirs unfamiliar, tenuous feelings of faith within the doctor. “It was simple, like he’d slipped slightly into her blood, and she’d slipped strongly into his thinking.” It is the rabbi’s companionship, her human interaction rather than her attempts at metaphor that leave the doctor changed.
The Color Master bursts with unexpected detail, subverting expectations while examining much about the human condition. The collection itself is an assemblage of surprises, but within each story are also moments of truth and wit and humor. By creating worlds, characters and occurrences that are one step removed from the familiar, Bender allows us to examine ourselves with curiosity. The Color Master is full of joy and at the same time represents some of the loneliest, questioning moments of human existence.