An Invisible Sign of My Own opens with an ax. “On my twentieth birthday, I bought myself an ax,” says Mona Gray at the beginning of the first chapter of Aimee Bender’s new novel. “It was the best gift I got in a decade.” Mona’s statement isn’t meant to voice self-pity; she’s simply stating a fact. The unusual gift is in line with events surrounding Mona’s previous birthdays, a list of which reads like a catalog of comic disasters: Mona is thrown out of her house by her mother on one inauspicious birthday; on another she has a party with two guests, both of whom leave early; she bakes a chocolate cake laced with insect poison on a third.
Bender’s first novel inhabits some of the same arenas as her previous book, the short story collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. Like the story collection, this novel visits isolated female protagonists with physically or emotionally absent fathers, and alternates between scenes of innocence and lingering menace. Entertaining and thought-provoking in its own right, however, An Invisible Sign is no rehash of Bender’s earlier work. Even if the novel doesn’t quite gel into a cohesive whole, Bender has produced something original.
An Invisible Sign takes place in the type of small American town that hardly exists today. The town has exactly one of everything: one elementary school, one butcher, one coffee shop, one baker, one hospital. Mona’s mother works in the town’s tourist bureau, dreaming of seeing the world while writing brochures like History of the Bug Shop and Evolution of Our Gas Station.
Shortly after her 19th birthday, Mona becomes a math teacher at her local elementary school. Her job comes not through any initiative of her own; the school’s principal, who remembers Mona as a good math student, appoints her to the position after the school’s previous math teacher unexpectedly leaves for Paraguay.
Mona has, in fact, spent the past 10 years of her life withdrawing from life as much as possible. Since her father began suffering from some unidentifiable illness and turned “gray, truly actually gray” 10 years earlier, Mona began giving up any part of life she enjoyed. She leaves the track team as the star runner, quits piano lessons after her first recital, and sabotages a relationship with her boyfriend when she begins to enjoy sex. After being thrown out of her parent’s house, Mona spends her time eating canned soup, cleaning the apartment, and ritualistically knocking on anything made of wood–desks, benches, trees, and pieces of paper.
Much to her surprise, Mona excels at teaching. Math becomes the student body’s favorite subject, thanks in part to both Mona’s enthusiasm for math and “numbers and materials,” a project she initiates in which students bring in real-life objects that resemble numbers. Mona’s job draws her into the real world and forces her to build human relationships, with both her students and co-workers–particularly the school’s new science teacher, Mr. Smith. The conflict that Mona feels between her pleasure at becoming an important and even integral part of a person’s world, and her need to distance herself, becomes the central theme of the book.
It takes a gifted writer to make a quirky character seem convincing. Even in the hands of a talented author, an oddball character can easily become a collection of idiosyncrasies. And yet making every character empathetic all of the time is the surest way to rob a story of humor. Bender manages this delicate balancing act, populating her novel with humorous but complicated characters. Mona’s neighbor, Mr. Jones, wears a set of numbers on a necklace chain to announce his mood to the world, but that doesn’t make his pain any less real when an adolescent Mona eggs his house and makes cruel remarks afterward. Some characters, such as a veteran who deliberately mangles his arm to be the first patient admitted to a new hospital, do appear more or less for comic relief, but even these characters still elicit reader sympathy.
With her characterization of Mona, Bender too avoids over-romanticizing her protagonist’s eccentricities. Mona’s love of numbers and math is part of what makes her a wonderful math teacher, and she’s far more reliable and self-sufficient than the average 20-year-old college student. Yet Mona is self-centered enough to be taught a lesson in perspective by one of her second-grade students, and naïve enough to believe that no one notices her constant knocking. Mona’s ill-considered decision to bring her ax to school as a real-life demonstration of the number seven turns out to have disastrous consequences.
An Invisible Sign of My Own does have minor dissappointments. There are a few overly cute moments, which is especially odd considering the grim nature of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and certain moments in An Invisible Sign. And the ending feels forced. In the space of only 20 pages, Bender has Mona find true love, and neatly resolve long-standing issues with her father, two students, and a former neighbor. After a particularly harrowing climax, Bender seems to have decided to make up for it by dissolving many of her protagonists’ problems.
But even the most rushed of endings couldn’t have completely undone An Invisible Sign. Bender has created a unique and fascinating world, and for most of the novel, she isn’t afraid to deal with it honestly.