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The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

During my holiday travels this year I’ve made a concerted effort not to tote around superfluous reading materials; instead I’m relying on friends and family to provide recommendations and the short-term loan of their favorite fiction.

Last week while visiting a friend in southern California, Aimee Bender’s debut volume of short stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1999) came highly recommended. Short stories normally leave me cold, as I prefer text I can sink my teeth into and characters that need more than a few pages to be fully revealed. Bender’s stunning prose however deftly sketches out her central characters in satisfying depth and generally shakes up common perception of the limitations of the short story genre – by denying them completely.

From a librarian who seeks to feel an emotion other than grief by entertaining her male patrons in the back room, one after the other, to a mermaid and an imp who masquerade as teenagers but yearn for someone to really understand their identities, Bender presents one surreal world after another. The emotions of the characters and their frequent dissatisfaction with life’s hardships emerge in unusual ways, often with a heady dose of poignant eroticism. Bender’s prose is lyrical and smart, and the 16 stories in her first collection a joy to read, even when discovered a decade late. They’re still fresh and intelligent, and it’s a delight to come across a short story author who can paint tales with such cogent brevity.

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