I read Willful Creatures, Aimee Bender’s last collection of short stories, in paperback back in March, and since then have read over 50 subsequent books – and yet I can still recall a handful of the stories – ‘Dearth’, ‘End of the Line’ and ‘Ironhead’ – as if I read them yesterday. Bender is a writer with an unusual capacity for creating offbeat, twisted, lyrical images and situations, her words like a fork in your brain. The Color Master contains stories as good as anything she has done before.
The title story, for instance, which takes a literary fairytale called ‘Donkeyskin’ by Charles Perrault – a story in which a recently widowed king looks to marry his daughter only for his daughter to offer him tests by way of delaying tactics, having him arrange for items of clothing that resemble the moon, the sun and the sky; Bender’s story takes up with the dressmakers responsible for fashioning these garments and a wondrous thing it is too, shimmering and fantastical, like a harp whose music floats in the air as tiny golden crystals. The last story in the book, ‘The Devourings’, is also terrific – the tale of an unattractive young woman who takes up with an ogre and lives among ogre folk, happy enough until her ogre husband eats all of his children one night by accident after a night on the ale. Bender undoubtedly owes a debt to Angela Carter but the originality and verve of her best prose is startling and vivid in a fresh way that is all her own. Bender’s greatest skill is in marrying sweetly ordinary every day life (kids eating apples in an orchard, a married couple kicking around possible fantasies to spice up things in the bedroom department, a pair of sisters who help each other out) with oddball dream figments (a girl who seemingly invites her own rape, a wife who playacts until she doesn’t know who she is anymore, an ambush of tigers whose yawns split their backs apart), the whole nagging and worrying at you like a whitlow.
This isn’t to say though that Aimee Bender is a writer like, say, Kelly Link or even Neil Gaiman. She employs the fantastical certainly but it is not all that she does. There are plenty of stories in The Color Master that are, on the surface, more straightforward than anything else she has written before. Eschewing the fantastical in favour of characters who are themselves willing to push, sometimes cruelly, at the ordinary makes for exhilarating rides. In ‘Bad Return’ for instance, a lonely student finds herself in a succession of strange situations, ranging from a naked open air protest to an old man’s bedroom, and as she pushes herself to try out things she would never previously have done she glimpses another person within, an angry person capable of who knows what. ‘Americca’ offers us up a family in which objects just appear, mysteriously, within the family home, to the consternation and occasional betterment of all. Better still, in ‘On a Saturday Afternoon’ – which reminded this reader of Jonathan Lethem’s terrific foot fetishist short story ‘One Thing’ – a woman goads two male friends on to perform, sexually, for her, whilst she remains an observer. Although barely ten pages the story is as crisp as an apple.
Not every story offers the punch of the best stories (‘Lemonade’, for instance, concerns another unhappy young lady whose mall visit turns and turns without really reaching a satisfying conclusion, ‘State of Variance’ feels like a couple of stories that have met on a dark street and quickly discovered they don’t have a lot to say to each other), but overall the collection is a good one with enjoyable stories far outstripping the wobbly ones.
Any Cop?: Bender continues to impress and The Color Master is a must-read for any fans of the more or less fantastical short story. Now if only the Americans could learn how to spell ‘colour’…