Aimee Bender's Fiction and the Intertextual Ingestion of Fairy Tales

By Carney, Jo | Marvels & Tales, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Aimee Bender's Fiction and the Intertextual Ingestion of Fairy Tales


Carney, Jo, Marvels & Tales


When Aimee Bender's fiction is described, the designation "fairy tale" frequently appears along with recurring descriptors: magical, surreal, phantasmagoric, bizarre. One critic refers to Bender's short stories as "contemporary fairy tales, cushioned by goofy humor and a deep tenderness for her characters" (Press 14), and another writes that her first novel "reads like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale overlaid with the futuristic alienation of Philip K. Dick" (R. Johnson 36). 1 Bender herself acknowledges her affinity with fairy tales, often citing the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen as formative literary influences. In 2004 she told an interviewer, "1 feel like somewhere along the line 1 ate fairy tales, 1 ingested and digested them, and now they're part of my whole person" (S. Johnson 22).

Yet Bender's work - two novels, An Invisible Sigi of My Own (2000) and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010); two short story collections, The Girl in the Hammable Shirt (1999) and Willful Creatures (2006); and miscellaneous stories - does not overtly call attention to its kinship with the fairy-tale tradition. Readers expecting stories that deliberately evoke and subversively rework familiar tale types along the lines of Angela Carter, Robert Coover, Margaret Atwood, or A. S. Byatt will not find them in Bender's fiction. This late twentieth-century group of writers, the "Carter generation" as Stephen Benson refers to them, signal blatantly that they are entering fairy-tale territory through their titles, direct revision of familiar plot and character types, or explicit interfacing with previous fairy-tale iterations. Bender's work, on the other hand, is Imbued with a fairy-tale ethos, but its presence is more obliquely felt, The fairy-tale works of Bender's predecessors offer, for example, a radically feminist Uttle Red Riding Hood, an ecocritically alert revision of "Beauty and the Beast," and a sexualized and predatory Snow White, but these wildly innovative challenges to the politics and aesthetics of canonical tales nonetheless remain firmly within the circumscribed and recognizable realm of the fairy-tale genre. Benders agenda is different: her purpose is not to parody fairy-tale clichés or to interrogate its ideological underpinnings, particularly in the areas of gender and class. Rather, Bender frequently but sporadically appropriates fairy-tale motifs and structural patterns to explore how humans negotiate their strange and incomprehensible worlds: a magical dress serves as a cover for a woman~ insecurity and self-loathing, an amputation points to a character~ emotional fragility, a child born with a grotesque malformation becomes an occasion for exposing cruelty and alienation.

Because Bender is a relative newcomer in contemporary fiction, literary criticism of her work has not yet caught up to her broader acclaim. In his recent Relentless Progress, Jack Zipes mentions Bender as an emerging writer who deserves more attention, and he credits her with avoiding the trap of producing formulaic fiction "for the market" like so much adaptive fairy-tale writing. Zipes describes Bender as a writer for whom "the fairy tale has become more charged with neurotic intensity and more layered" and whose short stories combine "elements of the folk tale, magic realism, the grotesque, and the macabre that ruptures readers' expectations" (130). In this essay I further explore the "neurotic" and "layered" additions that Bender makes to the fairytale corpus. These additions fall into four broad categories: appropriation of conventional form; intertextual use of common themes and motifs; an exploradon of the fairy tales paradigm of the family dynamic; and the invention of fresh autonomous tales. In these ways Bender reworks familiar fairy-tale elements into fiction that charts the emotional disconnection her characters experience in an overwhelming and absurd postmodern landscape.

The Fairy Tale and Conventions of Form

Benders stories invite immediate association with the fairy tale because they appear to emulate its formulaic conventions: her tales are typically brief, they eschew complex characterization, and they posit their sense of the fantastic squarely and unapologetically within the realm of fairy-tale logic. …

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