rev. of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender

Issue #77
Winter 1998-99

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt 
Stories by Aimee Bender. Doubleday, $21.95 cloth. Reviewed by Fred Leebron.

All elements are on fire in Aimee Bender’s startling and funny debut collection,
The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. Set predominantly in San Francisco and parts unknown, these sixteen stories boldly and confidently explore the nature of failed relationships due to liplessness, ennui, and, in one case, a hole in the stomach.

“What You Left in the Ditch” is a touching tale about a veteran’s wife coming to terms with his disfigured return from the war. In powerful, ironic, and declarative prose, the story begins: “Steven returned from the war without lips.” Of course, he has plastic prostheses, but still, this is a bit too much for his wife, Mary. In search of lips, she strays afield with a guy from a grocery store: “He stepped down to a lower plain so he was suddenly her height and she went into his face and kissed those lips, reminded herself. They were so soft. She kissed him for a moment, and then she had to move away; they were too soft, the softness was murdering her.” In such spare prose, Bender’s deft language connects the ironic world of surrealistic invention to the real world of pain and empathy, and indicates a writer who never takes the easy way out.

In “Quiet Please,” a beautiful, grieving librarian takes a day at work to seduce every available man who approaches her desk, having each join her in the back room for “the sex that she wishes would split her open and murder her because she can’t deal with a dead father; she’s wished him dead so many times that now it’s hard to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.” It’s no mistake that such an erotic run is confounded by the muscleman from a traveling circus: while such enactments of lust might be deadly, they are not as powerful as they seem.

One has the wonderful sensation reading this book that the stories, while playful and authoritative in content and style, insist on their own vulnerability. The narrator from “Fell This Girl,” for instance, allows herself to yield to any seductor, even an old man “redder and sweaty, a sappy smile on his face.” In the bar, she tells us, “I lay my arms across the top of the couch like I’m claiming the world, this is all mine, I’m so confident.” Yet having escaped by story’s end, she’s absolutely exposed: “I will feel the wind fill up my dress and pass through me in tunnels until I am so numb with cold, I can’t tell when we stop.”

These are stories in which even the contemplation of a ceramic bowl will lead a character to considering the quicksand nature of sex and love, and in which a very skilled writer develops a voice of astonishing pace and wisdom.
The Girl in the Flammable Skirt is an entertaining and powerful collection.

Fred Leebron is the author of the novel Out West
and co-editor of  Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology.
His new novel, Six Figures,
is forthcoming from Knopf.