Bender’s first novel, following a successful collection of stories (The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, 1998), is exasperating and charming in about equal measure.
Narrator Mona Gray becomes a math teacher at age 20. Her life is a constellation of numbers, worries, and activities abandoned. She finds a riff in every utterance, a digression in every observation, and her creator indulges every one. Especially in Part One, story development jerks and sputters; some of the asides, like drum solos, roll out of control into tedium. One reason the jamming doesn’t work is that the narrative voice is a shopworn compendium of self-consciously pomo gags and gimmicks: asynchronous dialogue, deadpan presentation, incongruous details, looping compound sentences followed by staccato bursts of fragments. Mona would be a more effective storyteller if she simply trusted her tale. When the story finally emerges from the overlush undergrowth, it features moments of real charm and poignancy. We meet the science teacher, a disarmingly self-assured young eccentric who encourages his students to act out symptoms of diseases; Lisa Venus, a second-grader tormented by her mother’s cancer; and Mona herself, bemused and befuddled by her mysterious life. As her father succumbs to an unnamed, slowly debilitating disease, Mona retreats into a protective cocoon of numbers and signs that neither she nor anyone else can factor. When the science teacher’s arrival offers both love and a threat to Mona’s affectless retreat, then numbers metaphor shifts from cute and quirky to emotionally expressive, and the prose lifts from riff to song.
Sometimes this young author’s tale of young people, chronicled by a young narrator, just feels young. Sometimes it is exuberantly, heartbreakingly youthful.