Drowning by Numbers


The language of math, not famously suited to communicating fear, sadness, loss, or confusion, is put to disturbingly rich emotional use in Aimee Bender’s spectacular first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own. The setting is a nameless small town where numbers become odd symbols of doom. A local man ranks his daily moods with wax numbers slung from his neck, and the annual marathon leaves in its wake a litter of race numbers that settle on lawns like troubled fortunes dispensed to everyone in town.

Here, Mona Gray lives with her mother and an ashen, reclusive father whose mysterious ailment goes undiagnosed. Mona, a math teacher, presides over a class of second-graders who make the kids from Lord of the Flies look like sweethearts. In a show-and-tell called Numbers and Materials, Mona’s students search for real-life objects that resemble numbers. Seems innocent enough, but in this soon-to-be-bloody world such exhibitionism is never simple, and never harmless. A girl whose mother has cancer brings in a zero she’s made from an IV tube, someone makes a five out of meat, and a little boy arrives with a large jar preserving his father’s severed arm. It’s meant to be a one.

Though she excels at nearly everything she tries, Mona is a self-described addict of quitting. Her rationale: “Winning is lonely.” After a rapturous piano recital as a girl, Mona fires her piano teacher and banishes her from the house. She quits the track team and insults the coach, who can’t understand why a girl so fast would choose not to run, and when she finds herself falling in love, she stuffs her mouth with the soap her boyfriend uses so she will gag whenever she smells him.

This superstition toward success plays into a fascinating calculus of fear that spooks Mona from nearly every form of engaged life, literally repulsing her from the pleasures she achieves too easily. It is hard not to connect her high caution with her listless father’s illness, which, symptomatically anyway, resembles an acute fear of being alive. It is all he can do to go out to dinner on his birthday. Yet Mona’s fear has a reckless ostentation; her contribution to her own show-and-tell is an ax, which she brazenly carries around town before installing it in the classroom as a seven. It’s as though she wants to get caught acting out, and her search for danger, dictated by a treacherously associative relationship to numbers, makes reading this novel something like watching Freud’s Wolf Man come out of the woods and get scorched by the light of civilization.

It is Mona’s special talent to see, in numbers, forecasts of awful events. When a marathoner’s number lodges in the tree outside her house, she is convinced that it predicts the age of her father at his death, giving him one week to live. She sets about, however crazily, to try to prevent it, to beat the prophecy she herself has invented. Her mutilating, future-changing logic, which involves the possible sacrifice of her own limbs in return for her father’s life, is passionate, strange, and ultimately self-destructive, though no less believable. Eventually it leads to a chaotic scene of classroom mayhem that shows Mona the terrible limits of living under her own alchemical rules.

Bender is brilliant at dramatizing the most extreme reactions to life, how logic can take a person to hell. Mona’s rituals and accelerated superstitions, such as knocking on wood until her hand is bloody, seem frighteningly plausible, and by the end of the book, it’s hard not to defend the effectiveness of her methods. Superstition comes to seem like the best kind of common sense. Bender effortlessly demonstrates how easy it would be to slide from the safety of superstition to a wilder, destructive kind of compulsion. As with her first book, the collection of stories The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, odd scenarios in an America that is nearly stripped of identifying markers are fused with sad, airless characters who putter after the dimmest desires. Bender is an expert at illuminating the terror of everyday things: going to school, having conversations, being seen at all. Her vision echoes the Burroughs maxim that “paranoia is getting the facts straight.”

As dark and authentically perilous as this novel is, it achieves simplicity and sweetness as well, with fantastical, fairy-tale touches at the fringes. Bender ignores the downtime and background scaffolding of a typical novel’s composition in order to portray a dangerous approach to behavior, where a frightened and grief-stricken mind must invent its own laws to understand the mysteries of the world. Line by line, the reader is rewarded with a masterful prose style and an artistic vision that ruthlessly breaks down and dramatizes the arbitrary but necessary strategies people employ to keep themselves from never leaving their houses, speaking to no one, cringing in fear under their beds.