by Aimee Bender
DoubledayBuy at Powell’s »
March 29, 2011
Contrasting the two novels, Next by James Hynes, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender seemed like it should be an easy task. In the first few pages Hynes introduced a callow, insecure male protagonist obsessed with sex and reflecting back on his life in a climate of modern anxiety, while Bender produced a thoughtful but guarded young female protagonist trapped in a dysfunctional family and fixated on food. Thank God contemporary fiction is moving beyond sweeping gender stereotypes, I thought.
But my eye-rolling was quickly subverted by the inventive plotting of Lemon Cake, and although Next didn’t stray too far from its template of middle-aged identity crisis, it was suspenseful and ripe with artful language. Both featured unexpected twists in their closing chapters, and both toyed knowingly with the literary tropes at their respective cores.
As a middle-aged, college-educated, unmarried man I am surely the target audience of Next. Like a conversation with an old and boastful friend at a reunion dinner, Next leavens its ribald male swagger with broad strokes of progressive sensitivity, aware that in order to call a spade a spade certain niceties are required. Kevin Quinn, a book editor in his fifties, is passing time before a job interview in Austin by stalking an Asian hipster girl he met on the plane down from his home in Ann Arbor, reflecting wryly on his past lovers as he trails this seductive stranger. Like most media-savvy people of his generation, he orders his world by reflexively and compulsively referencing pop-culture at every opportunity, even in his inner monologue, taking his encyclopedic knowledge to be proof of his wit. Here’s Kevin glimpsing the skyline of Austin for the first time:
One building is much taller than the others The tower glints icily in the sun, looking slightly unreal and miniature and menacing, the lair of a Bond villain Or perhaps it’s a corporate Barad-dur, the four icy panels concealing a huge, fiery red eye with a slit like a cat’s, ready to cast its baleful light on the hapless residents of Austin.
Hynes references The Lord of the Rings without further explanationhe knows his readers all get it, and get the implied link between a skyscraper and the Dark Tower too. But Hynes doesn’t mean us to see his main character’s fanboy reveries as character attributes or flaws, because his third-person narrator speaks the same way, weaving reference after reference into every setting and description in a kind of hepcat-speak that kept pulling me out of the story. By the time Kevin Quinn started encountering real difficulty in the last few chapters I had lost my ability to empathize with him, seeing him only as a proxy for the author’s own nostalgia.
Despite its transparent, first-person style, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake has such a flat affect that the first couple of chapters breezed by weightlessly. Set in residential Hollywood in the haze of the recent past, we’re introduced to a cheerily unhappy middle-class family through the eyes of Rose, an eight-year-old girl who all of a sudden can taste emotions in her food, specifically the emotions of the cooks that prepared it. When I read this, I sighed in resignation. Half the cashiers at Whole Foods probably claim to have this talent. I braced for long passages waxing gastronomic as the poor little girl learns she can only eat food made with love, and I hoped I wouldn’t gag on the sanctimony. But as the story unfolded, far from adopting a preachy tone about organic meat and locally sourced produce, Aimee Bender has Rose resort to eating factory-processed junk food in search of something emotionally inert. Bravo.
Rose is a dispassionate narrator, trapped rather than empowered by her gift. Largely ignored by her mother in favor of her brooding older brother, she has no one to confide in except her brother’s gifted friend George, whose interest in her is merely polite. The characters are all wallowing in what at first seems like unremarkable suburban malaise. Rose’s creative, unfulfilled mother and unconvincingly cheerful and clueless lawyer father are the stuff of 10,000 sitcom pilots, with Rose’s unrevealed talent the only thing to rise above the level of cliché. But gradually a feeling of claustrophobia takes over. Something uneasy, even malevolent, is lurking in this family’s unspoken secrets.
The tension builds in a satisfying way until, in the final third of the book, Bender’s magical realism verges into the queasily surreal. Rose’s family is supernaturally over-sensitive to other people’s suffering, but each bears their burden alone while pretending to be normal. Her brother Josephspoiler alerthas arduously trained himself to disappear, or dissolve into a chair, (it’s unclear which) to escape the normal pressures of life, and his final disappearance sends the family sprawling. But his actual dissolution is so confusingly portrayed, and his motivation for such an extreme action so hard to fathom, that the book becomes somewhat cold-hearted. Is his self-abnegation a metaphor for introspection? Autism? If so, it’s barefaced and artless. Is his teleportation(?) also a misused gift like Rose’s, a superpower that went unrecognized until it became a handicap? If so, a lot more energy could have gone into exploring that idea. The conceit of an emotionally closed-off narrator is a bold choice, and it’s testimony to Bender’s writing prowess that I cared about the coping strategies of a family struggling to stay dead inside, but in the end more information was needed. The story wanted more heart.
Despite its at times suffocating obscurity, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake was ultimately an enjoyable read. Aimee Bender’s characters were well conceived and presented without overt comment. While Next had many pleasures, James Hynes gave in too easily to the temptation to blast his wit from a blunderbuss. Had his character alone done the pontificating, his omniscient narrator might not have worn out his welcome too soon.
John Roderick is currently the lead singer and guitarist in the band The Long Winters. His first book of extremely short prose, Electric Aphorisms, was published in November 2009. Known connections to this year’s contenders: None!