The Color Master by Aimee Bender

April 2014, Anchor
240 pgs

What is the role of the fairy tale in literature? Is it to teach children morality lessons? Do they exist merely to entertain? Can they exist as allegory to reflect and comment on society? Are they supposed to scare the hell out of us? If you’ve ever read the original European fairy tales from Grimm and company, you’ve certainly found the kind that can scare you. In fact, there is a whole school of literary criticism/psychoanalysis that claims that children need to read about the monsters in fairy tales to better understand their own dark feelings, or more poetically, the monster inside of them. I think a good fairy tale can accomplish most things I just mentioned.

Author Aimee Bender

Author Aimee Bender

In Aimee Bender’s newest collection of short stories, she has reinvented the fairy tale in the form of post-modern magical realism (For adults, mind you. Definitely not safe for the wee ones.) The Color Master contains fifteen very short stories of murder, magic, and monstrosity that blends tools of several masters of the trade: in these stories you will find Italo Calvino’s imaginative ideas, Joyce Carol Oates’s dark dark wit, Angela Carter’s female-centric view of the traditional fairy tale, Lorrie Moore’s upside down and backwards way of looking at the modern story, a bit of Margaret Atwood’s adept handling of bizarre sex, and just a tinge of (Jorge Luis) Borges’s magic stirred in for good measure.
The collection begins with one of the most loaded symbols in storytelling history: the apple. In “Appleless,” a wheat-haired girl does not like the taste of apples. “She didn’t even like to look at them. They’re all too mealy, she said. Or else too cheeky, too bloomed.” The narrator of the story is so baffled by her odd taste that he/she decides, along with the rest of the population in this magic world, to only eat apples, forever. But that doesn’t solve the problem. And they attack the girl. What are we to glean from this story? The implications weave and fold and spread for days after reading.
In another story, a perfectly normal human woman is married to an ogre who accidentally eats one of their children in a sort of ogre-ish panic attack. Going back to that aforementioned theory of children and monsters, the same critics also postulated that children’s most innate fear is that of being consumed; hence Hansel and Gretel and the like. In Bender’s version, we have the human perspective on this fantastical situation. It’s magnificent.
In the titular story, fans of Bender will recognize her use of synesthesia as a storytelling mechanism. In her novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, a character tastes the chef’s feelings in every bite of food prepared for her. In “The Color Master,” a seamstress weaves emotions into her colors.
In one of the least fantastical but most conversation-worthy stories, “The Red Ribbon,” a woman decides she can no longer feel sexual attraction to her husband unless he pays her for her sex. She tells him, “I need a specific amount each time or I feel I will melt into nothingness.”
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