An Invisible Sign of My Own
Anchor Books / Random House
US Trade Paperback Reprint
Publication Date: 07-17-2001
242 Pages; $12.95
Date Reviewed: 09-16-05
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005
We each live in our own world, carefully constructed, conceived one day at a time. To us, our world is infinite. We know that there are parts we can't see. But others who perceive our world, through our communications with them, understand that the world we construct is very limited, even while they see their own world as unlimited. There's a chain of misapprehension that links us to one another. We all know better than those around us, but never quite get that they think the same of us.
The fictional worlds of novels are clearly limited. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. Each is built with a finite number of words. But those words suggest an infinity of things unseen, a universe of experiences beyond those recorded in any single novel. In 'An Invisible Sign of My Own', Amy Bender's window on her world is particularly clear, preternaturally precise. Mona Gray is more than a bit obsessed. She's possessed. She's owned by numbers, by the glass windows that let her see her life and the lives of those around her with a clarity that is unsettling and unreal. Inner beauty and outer order are one in the same for Mona. Bender's unique novel is a bracing plunge into a world of crystalline clarity countered by unspoken emotions that cast shadows larger than clouds.
Mona Gray is a math teacher in the small town where she grew up. What could be more normal than that? Well, as it turns out, plenty. She's best described as compulsive, a little tweaked. She knocks on things to relieve her stress, and there's plenty of that to disperse. Since her teenage days, her father has been sidelined by an unspecified illness. She's good with numbers, decent with children, but has a hard time getting on with adults. The town where she lives and works seems at first a typical small American town. Schools, businesses, a hospital, it's all there. What could be more normal?
Pretty much anything is more normal than anything in Bender's peculiar but powerful novel. Her combination of clear vision and minimalist execution blend to create a surreal portrait of the human psyche perched on the edge of a glass globe that moves through a sky of crystalline spheres. This is the world of Ozzie and Harriet, scrubbed raw and seen with a clarity that annihilates as it describes. This is your life, my life, every life neatly dissected and carefully mounted on a microscope slide. Bender brings the kind of absurd humor to her story that makes the reader want to laugh out loud and plunge into the abyss. This is Kafka's 'The Castle' in pastels, with pigtails.
Bender's appeal lies in her ability to insert glass slivers into the reality we think we know and then let the world slip slowly, almost imperceptibly out of kilter. Pretty soon, you're reading a book and living in a world where the hardware store guy, who used to be the math teacher, wears a number around his neck every day to tell you how he's feeling. If he's in the single digits, the situation is dire, very dire. If he shows up with a 42 around his neck, well, we all know what that means right? Happy days again!
Bender is a master at evoking straightforward sexual tension between Mona and the men around her. And under that tension, oh so clearly, is another layer of tension, invisible strings between her and her father. He goes to a hospital made entirely of glass. Readers will see the blue crystalline structure, touching the sky, like a crack in reality. Be aware that reading this book is likely to send a few cracks through your reality.
Bender's mastery of clearly written prose enables her to crank up tension and even terror. Yes, there is a significant amount of the latter in this lovely little novel. After a fable-like prologue, it begins, "On my twentieth birthday, I bought myself an axe." And the way Mona talks, you know that axe is going to see some use. But you won’t be able to guess how, why or when.
Bender's characters blip in out of the void like ice sculptures come to life. They’re funny and just weird enough to seem real, even if the archetypes glow fiercely beneath their skins. You'll find yourself looking for Mr. Jones, the hardware store owner who wears those numbers around his neck, who will always seem to be just around the corner. And don't be surprised if you keep expecting the kids in Mona's classroom and their parents to pop in if you attend "Back to School Night". Just hope that you don’t have the same experience afterwards that Mona has.
For a book filled with clarity and invisibility, with specificity and the unreal made real, Bender's novel is structured with a sophisticated layered plot. She manages to strut directly and without going overboard – directly overboard. If that seems contradictory, then it at least suggests the conflicts you'll experience reading 'An Invisible Sign of My Own'. And as much as you might want to wear those conflicts on your sleeve after reading the novel, you'd be well advised not to do the "numbers round your neck", uh, number. Even if your town sports a glass hospital, a crystalline shard from the sky frozen into some sort of ice tray for your emotions, you should keep some part of yourself to yourself. Know your limits, even if you know your world is unlimited.