A woman's lover devolves into a tadpole. A girl has a hand made of fire. A guy brings a tiny man home to keep as a pet. Two pumpkinheads give birth to an ironhead. Such are the delightfully odd premises behind the fiction of Aimee Bender, a modern fabulist and sharp prose stylist who sprinkles fairy-tale dust into contemporary settings and conflicts. Her latest novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, is no exception, with a central conceit that's fetchingly simple and surreal: One day, a young girl named Rose Edelstein bites into a forkful of her mother's lemon cake with chocolate frosting, and finds that she can "taste" her mother's feelings in the dessert.
The novel broadens in unexpected ways, beyond the curious dazzle of Rose's psychic experience of food, as Bender "plumbs an emotionally crippled family with power and authenticity," as Publishers' Weekly puts it: "[T]his coming-of-age story makes a bittersweet dish, brimming with a zesty, beguiling talent." Bender talks about the book, food as metaphor, and what compels her to write magical realism.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake has revolved around its food theme. But it seems less about food and eating than it does about forgiveness and family ties.
You're right; I don't think of this as a food book at all. I was thinking of food more as a metaphor, as a way to talk about the dynamic between people.
There's a growing emphasis these days on knowing where our food comes from, but your main character, Rose, seeks a kind of refuge in processed food; for her, it's best to have as few real human hands on her food as possible.
Well, processed food is convenient and cheaper, but there have also got to be psychological reasons that we're drawn to it. I do feel like there's something about the familiarity of a bag of Cheetos that addresses something. It's comforting, even if it's bad.
You're known as a writer of magical realism, or a fabulist. What is it about that kind of storytelling that appeals to you?
For me, the goal is to capture some kind of feeling or experience that I cannot articulate for myself any other way. In order to get at that feeling, I want to use whatever tool I can. And often, looking at it through the shimmer of metaphor or a skewed vision is, paradoxically, a more direct way for me to think about or articulate something about an experience. I just don't ever feel like I can have an experience or observation and then just set it on the page. It doesn't transfer to language that cleanly. For me, magical storytelling becomes a way to make concrete something that I can then look at a little more closely.
So can you break down the stories and say, "Well, this magical element really means this for me"? Is it something that can be decoded?
Occasionally I'll be able to make that one-to-one ratio, but it's rarely that simple. Donald Bartheleme says his desire for art is that it should invite analysis but also push it away. A story should invite you to break it down, but you should never be able to break it down fully. I love that idea.
Rose is very different from many of the female characters in your other work, who sometimes act in audacious or surprisingly saucy ways.
The fiction writer's canvas is everybody, so it's interesting to me to write about characters who are really trying to do things in a good way, and having their own struggles, and characters who are acting out, who do all sorts of things that I'm too inhibited to do in my life. There's real joy in that.
You teach fiction writing at the University of Southern California. Are you noticing any trends in your students' writing?
Five years ago, there was a whole kind of Eggers/Bartheleme thrust toward funny, fresh, very McSweeney's-inspired work. Right now I think there's a lot of interest in [Roberto] Bolano. And zombies.
To read an uncut version of this interview, please visit Chapter 16 at http://www.chapter16.org/content/particular-art-magical-realism.
I just...this recap...why did I not know these were here until now?! 4 times on…
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
^ It's nice to see an official acknowledgement by management. Kristen Mcarther Miles (the girl…
How ironic that "Vandy radio" gets resurrected as a fictional station?! I was just glad…