I was ecstatic earlier this year when I first found out that Aimee Bender had a new release — of short stories, no less! — coming out this year. Even though Bender’s last book, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, left me feeling kind of meh, her short stories are a whole ‘nother ball game (I will stand by Willful Creatures forever and ever). I immediately pre-ordered her new book and resisted all urges to request an advance copy even though I really, really wanted to.
Psychological and fanciful, with her trademark elements of magical realism and a heavier-than-usual dose of fairy tale sensibilities, The Color Master was well worth the wait. The fifteen stories in this collection were every bit as bizarre and haunting and beautifully written as I’d hoped they’d be.
To give you a taste: the book opens with “Appleless.” The story is a little under three pages long, yet in that short span, Bender manages to transport you into a dreamlike apple orchard, where the people there are disturbed by the presence of a girl who doesn’t like apples. “Please, we pleaded, eat….It’s unsettling to meet people who don’t eat apples.” The truly unsettling part happens when they act on their obsession to get her to eat an apple. That story is followed by “The Red Ribbon,” which weaves in the old legend of the woman who refused to remove a velvet ribbon from around her neck lest her head fall off. There’s no unintentional decapitation in Bender’s story. Instead, there’s a woman who decides to fulfill her husband’s fantasy and make him pay her for sex. Unfortunately for him, she decides she likes it and keeps making him pay premium prices.
It’s so great to have Aimee Bender back.
My favorite story was the last one in the collection, “The Devourings.” It’s also one of the more fairy tale-esque stories in the book. An ogre and an ugly human woman carve out a life together in ogre land, even though ogre and human relations have always been historically fraught. Tragedy befalls their family, and suddenly this weird fairy tale for adults becomes a story of a disintegrating marriage (albeit one with magical objects like a special camouflage cloak and a cake that regenerates itself no matter how much you eat). It’s a story that ends on a completely different note than where it began, and it left me going, “How does she do that?!”
Another favorite was the title story. A specialty store makes clothing and shoes that match the natural elements. A duke, for instance, requests shoes that blend into rock, so that from a distance he looks like a floating pair of ankles. The workers create and dye the requested items as close to the finished product as they can get. Then they summon the Color Master, an old woman who can see beyond colors and work her magic to finish the product:
When you see a tomato, like me, you probably see a very nice red orb with a green stem, fresh and delectable. When she sees a tomato, she sees blues and browns, curves and indentations, shadow and light, and she could probably even guess how many seeds are in a given tomato based on how heavy it feels in her hand.
The duke keeps requesting more and more difficult items (such as a dress the color of the sun), but the Color Master is dying, and she has decided that the story’s narrator will take her place when she is gone.
Of course, I loved some stories more than others, but this was one of those rare instances where I liked every single story in the collection. I also loved the texture of the lettering on the cover; you can’t really see it from the picture, but it looks and feels like a strand of colorful serger thread. Much as I adore Serious Fiction™, Bender’s embrace of the strange and perverse is always so refreshing. The Color Master is definitely on my shortlist of favorites for this year.
The Color Master: Stories was released on August 13, 2013 by Doubleday.