'An Invisible Sign': poignant, bizarre


"An Invisible Sign of My Own," by Aimee Bender. Doubleday. 224 pages. $22.95.

Aimee Bender's first book, "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt," presented a hilariously macabre, surreal world. In those short stories, a woman gives birth to her own mother; another woman's lover suffers reverse evolution, turning into a kind of ape, a sea turtle, and then a "one-celled wonder"; a soldier returns home from war with no lips; and there is a town with "two mutant girls," one with a hand of fire, the other with a hand of ice. The characters in Bender's novel "An Invisible Sign of my Own," although considerably less bizarre, are by no means normal.

The protagonist, Mona Gray, is a 20-year-old second grade math teacher with a number fixation, a knocking compulsion, and dismemberment fantasies. Her high-school algebra teacher and former neighbor is subject to frequent depression and occasional elation. He wears a wax number around his neck rating his mood from 2 to 42, though "generally he hung steady around 15."

The school's science teacher, Benjamin Smith, with a background in acting, teaches his health segment by having his students act out the symptoms of various diseases. Waves of apparent epidemics hit the school, first scurvy, then croup, then consumption, and so on.

Mr. O'Mazzi, the father of one of Mona's students, is so eager to be the first patient in their small town's magnificent new hospital that he slams his arm in a car door. Unfortunately, the hospital's interior is not yet finished. With no equipment, doctors, or drugs to help him, Mr. O'Mazzi's arm becomes infected and must be amputated. After his recovery, Mr. O'Mazzi keeps his arm on his mantle in a glass box engraved with the words "First Surgery."

Amusing as they are, the minor characters' vaudevillean antics do not detract from Mona's predicament. Instead they provide comic relief from the poignant tale of her emotional crisis.

For 10 years, Mona's father has been suffering from a mysterious, unnamed disease. He left his dermatology practice to focus exclusively and obsessively on this illness, which never seems to worsen or improve. When his first symptoms appeared, Mona began withdrawing into herself, abandoning the activities she enjoyed. She even cut herself off from any potential friends.

As soon as her relationship with her first boyfriend became serious, she locked herself in the bathroom and devoured a bar of soap. Now the mere thought of the boy unleashes waves of nausea. The only passion she did not shut off was her love of numbers.

Numbers communicate with Mona through puzzling coincidences and she is sure they are predicting her father's death. Fear for her father, along with Benjamin Smith's growing devotion for Mona, gradually break down the walls she has built around herself. Mona narrowly avoids a complete collapse. Despite a relatively uplifting ending, Bender's novel is as gruesome as it is promising.

With great skill, Aimee Bender maintains a precarious balance between the humorous and the horrifying. The depth of feeling in her writing makes even the most preposterous of her plot twists seem fitting. The sinister undercurrents to Bender's hilarity bring complexity to this very entertaining novel.

Tess Lewis' translation of Peter Handke's "Once Again to Thucydides" will be published by New Directions this fall. She writes essays and reviews for the American Scholar, the Hudson Review and the New Criterion. She has a master's degree in English literature from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.

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