Aimee Bender: “Bad Return” from One Story #158, 12/20/11

"Memory" by Bin Xu

"Memory" by Bin Xu

“Plastic doesn’t recycle.” She shrugged off her coat. “Right? We can re-cycle it, but it can’t do anything on its own, and all it can ever do is be itself again. It is the worst kind of reincarnation. Lame! That is so lame! And it’s everywhere!” she cried, going to the bathroom to wash marigold dirt off her fingers.

This story is unrooted in time, and I think that’s deliberate. Look at the opening sentence:

I met Arlene in college, in the freshman dorm.

This implies that Claire, the first-person narrator, is telling the story from a time after college, yet after the exposition covering Freshman year, it’s specifically set “March of our senior year, just about two months before graduation” in an apartment Claire and Arlene share, with a brief flash-forward to the following year. But given what happens on that night, I can understand why the voice sounds memoir-ish. Time-travel via recycling. Or reincarnation.

Claire and Arlene, who ended up as Freshmen roommates and then friends by sheer chance, are very different, and the description of their differences provides an entertaining exposition. Arlene goes for “brute jocks” and favors a perm to give “a look of energy” to her hair. Claire prefers poets, and approaches her appearance differently.

…[P]art of trying to attract those poet-men was to look a little like I had wandered onto campus by accident after having spent ten years with the wolves behind some farmhouse living off scraps and reveling in the pure air like a half-girl Mogli, half-woman Thoreau.

Most of the poets Arlene meets don’t actually write poetry. Instead, they have

….books partially filled with the same poem, over and over, called “Life” and/or “Life II” and/or “Why Love Is An Illusion” – these men didn’t always want to touch a woman, or a man, but rather mostly themselves. It took me until senior year to find a poet who actually wrote poetry, and he took off my clothes very gently and spent nearly an hour on my neck and back, and when were were done and I felt all my waiting had been worth it, he explained that part of his education as a poet was to meet as many women as possible, and so this was now to be goodbye. He suggested I pretend he was going off to war on a boat. “What boat?” I said, clutching the blanket. “We live in Ohio.”

He leaves her with a bad poem (“Your breasts are fortune cookies, full of small wisdoms”) and she wants to show it to Arlene, but “although she had never been anything but sympathetic about my history with men, I couldn’t bear the thought that she might laugh at me and not him.”

I know that feeling. It’s very lonely. It’s also very familiar. No, not me, I went for nerds, not poets. I’ve always been skeptical of poets, for exactly the reasons given here. But it sounds just like Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine in Sheila Levine is Dead and Living In New York (which, by the way, is a favorite, though dated, book of mine).

The story moves on to senior year. Arlene’s been a bit tense, perhaps because of Hank. Their neighbor Hank was a voracious recycler, not even trusting the trucks that pick up curbside recycling bins, so he drives to the recycling center with his bins, except he accidentally hit and killed a doctor one day, a doctor who operated on children with cancer. It goes from there to an anti-war rally/orgy/mass-robbery, and a strange old man who needs help with a light bulb and has a ring Claire threw in the river back in California five years before; he advises her to stay friends with Arlene. As usual, Aimee Bender manages to tell this story so it flows completely naturally. At all times I was caught up in reading. It wasn’t until I finished the story that I wondered, hey, what was that? So I read it again, expecting to see new things that connected the elements. And again, I was in the moment throughout. This sounds like a good thing. And it is, of course. But it leaves me wondering about the overall story: How do the pieces fit together?

I have no doubt there are layers of symbolism here. Hank (who was the idea that started the story, according to Bender’s One Story Q&A), recycling, the old man, the rally, Arlene. But to be honest, I’m not really interested enough to bother. And that’s the problem with this story, for me. I like Aimee Bender. I loved “The Third Elevator.” I didn’t really explore the levels of symbolism there, either, but I enjoyed the story tremendously without the effort; this one doesn’t work for me the same way. There’s the same evolution, as the story turns into different stories. I like that effect. And I like the individual elements of this story. But as a whole, it loses me. Maybe I’m just impatient with reincarnation in all forms; I have a friend who sort of forces the issue on me once in a while, and I’m a bit weary of defending myself for not being interested. Aimee shouldn’t have to suffer for that, nor should her story. Nevertheless, she does, and while I like the exposition and denouement, I find the middle of the story, the primary plot, less than compelling.

We end up with the two roommates again (and, by the way, the last One Story #157 was also a college roommate story, which is neither here nor there but is too interesting to ignore). And here’s where I catch up with the story again.

I didn’t know what to ask her. How to be a person?… In the fall, she would be doing the Peace Corps or Teach for America, depending on which program took her first. Arlene, who made sure every used item went into the right bin because she wanted all things, everything, to find its way back into the world, new.

In spite of my misgivings about parts of the middle, and my lack of interest in figuring it out, I loved the beginning and end. And maybe that’s a place to start, especially for a story about recycling. Or reincarnation. Or both.

2 responses to “Aimee Bender: “Bad Return” from One Story #158, 12/20/11

  1. I absolutely agree with your remarks. The beginning and the ending are provocative but the actual story is convoluted? The scene in the old man’s house is weird…I kept expecting something to glue it all together?

    • Hi Sharon – I don’t remember the story well enough to comment (which says something in itself) and I don’t have time to re-read it but thanks for coming by! If you can find it, read “The Third Elevator” instead. It’s also nutso (everything she does is) and sometimes I can’t keep the events straight, but I have a clear image of it in my head – and I carry the Madras Press edition of it around in my rucksack for whenever I need to read something to make me smile.

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