This collection, originally published in 1998, was on my to-read list for ages, but my local libraries and bookstores never carried it. Fortunately, with the recent popularisation of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender’s older works have gotten the reissue treatment (slash they’ve made it to backwater Australia in the first place). Even with the reissue, though, this was still a difficult find. I had to grab the LARGE PRINT edition from my local library. Ever read a large-print story about a promiscuous librarian during the morning train commute? Didn’t think so. Don’t scoff.
Fortunately, it was worth the trouble. Although The Girl with the Flammable Skirt feels a bit like the work of a writer still developing their voice, its stories were loaded with entertainment value. Bold, eccentric and dripping with originality, Bender’s short fiction contains highly memorable plots with unconventional subject matters. She trades in the sort of quirky surrealist style associated with writers like Francesca Lia Bloc and Miranda July. A strong sexual undercurrent also permeates these works, further accentuating this comparison.
Still, I enjoyed this way more than Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You. Though they’re aesthetically similar, I find July’s writing gratingly cute and too far removed from reality; Flammable Skirt was, oddly, more grounded in real human emotion, thus I connected better to the stories. (I say oddly because, like contemporary fairytales, Bender’s subject matter is pretty out there: an incognito imp, of high school age, makes an unwitting sexual advance while stroking the hair of an incognito teenage mermaid; a woman’s boyfriend, disillusioned with the state of the world, experiences – perhaps initiates – reverse evolution, eventually becoming a salamander; two young women experience the hardships of adolescence – with added elemental burdens: one has an ice hand, one fire.)
Reading these, I was delightfully forced from my comfort zone (realist literary fiction). The stories were often trés silly, but Bender sells them, establishing the parameters quickly and upholding them, honouring them. Universality grounds even the most outlandish story, and so they read like strange fables, cautionary tales. I’m intellectualising what doesn’t need to be: at their core, I must emphasise, these stories are just great fun.
I had several favourites, including: ‘The Ring’, a story about besotted thieves whose stolen ruby ring permanently dyes everything it contacts; ‘Quiet Please’, a story about a grief-stricken librarian who decides to have sex with every man who enters her library; ‘Dreaming in Polish’, a story about a prophetic old couple who dream visions of the future in unison; and ‘What You Left in the Ditch’, a story about a military wife who finds it hard to love her wounded husband after he returns from war without lips.
A couple didn’t quite hit home (the sprawling, overambitious ‘Marzipan’ and the ineffectual ‘Legacy’), but theses don’t tarnish what was an otherwise compelling debut. I’ve no doubt I’ll be reading more of Aimee Bender’s work in the future.