Aimee Bender is no longer the whiz kid of the American short story. The Color Master is her fifth work of fiction, and along with the idiosyncratic George Saunders she now stands as one of the reigning masters of the eccentric American short story. Fortunately, she's showing no signs of growing up. This latest collection offers a goodly number of one-of-a-kind stories, beautiful in their dreaminess and imaginative vision, a vision that ranges — you'll discover as you read — from stories about the origin of things to stories with an apocalyptic flavor.
The title story dovetails with the events of Charles Perrault's late 17th Century fairy tale "Donkeyskin," in which a widower king finds himself driven to marry his own daughter — and pursues this end with an intensity that reeks of contemporary neurosis. Bender's story starts from a fairy tale base — it's got folk artists and royalty — and goes a few steps further, inventing a way to manufacture colors that reflect evanescent states of nature, and states of feeling within the human emotional palette. If you want to put a name on the style, you might call this yoking of antique mode and contemporary life post-modernist, akin to the best of Italo Calvino in its matter-of-fact treatment of the fantastic. Another precursor seems to be the British writer Angela Carter, though Bender replaces the ferocity of Carter's diction with a serene sentence-making prowess all her own.
But why give yourself over to literary category name-game? Not when you can just sit back and enjoy the story. The narrator, a shop owner and dressmaker in an unnamed royal kingdom, makes clothing "in the colors of natural elements." The king, wanting to please his daughter, orders a special dress from her shop. And when the narrator calls in the Color Master — a woman of a certain age — for consultations, she has some very interesting ideas. The story goes on from there at a beautifully placid pace, embracing both the world of the fairy tale and our own everyday psychological realm.
At the height of her powers, Bender seems like she's always working to stem a drift between experience and nature, tying the most fantastic accounts to the everyday life of ordinary people — shopkeepers, dressmakers, teachers, students. In "The Devourings," for example, we meet a perfectly normal human woman, who's married to a near-sighted ogre out of a fairy tale. Together they've raised a family of six children, whom the ogre accidentally devours one night in a literally monstrous act of hunger.
"What marriage could recover?" the writer asks. Good question.
The woman decides to leave the ogre, but not before he drinks ninety-some beers at the local tavern and packs some supplies for her for the road — some fruit, and a magically self-regenerating cake. We follow the woman further and further into a story that seems to transform itself from fairy tale into a dystopian myth that borders on the apocalyptic. Even after she and her ogre spouse and all of their generation have died, we hear that the "cake went on and on," and that "time passed and the climate shifted. The trees and grasses faded, and the land grew dry. Birds stopped flying overhead. Reptiles ate the cake but eventually died out..."
Not all the stories in The Color Master succeed so well in terms of the warping and morphing of conventional subject matter into the fantastic — or might we put it, at the business of yoking such things as astrophysics and the seemingly ordinary practice of sewing. But most of them are at least "WODEFUL" — to borrow the wording from a sign that one character has kept for years over her bed, a sign from which a few letters have fallen. It seems clear from all this that one-time whiz-kid Bender has a long life as an artist ahead of her. To use her own language, she's become a color master, of excellent reputation and practice, whom we'll need to consult again and again. So in many ways — and this is great news for all of us, writer and readers alike — her experiment has just begun.