On Monday, we heard from author David James Poissant on craft elements he admires in Steven Barthelme’s story “Heaven.” On Wednesday, Masters Review editor Kim Winternheimer took us through the beautifully crafted sentences of Lauren Groff’s “Ghosts and Empties.” Today, editor Sadye Teiser talks about Aimee Bender’s story “The Rememberer” and the lessons it can teach us about writing with authority.
“Even for writers who strictly follow the realist tradition, “The Rememberer” is a good lesson in sticking to your guns. Writing any story involves a tacit agreement to do something crazy—to conjure a world and its characters entirely from your mind. You have to commit to it.”
Discussed by Sadye Teiser
When I taught introduction to fiction writing classes, I always looked forward to the day when we would discuss one of my favorite stories, Aimee Bender’s “The Rememberer.” In this short and pithy tale, a woman’s lover experiences rapid “reverse evolution.” One morning, he wakes up as an ape. Eventually, he’s a sea turtle, later: a salamander.
I would use “The Rememberer” as a way into talking about magical realism, one of my favorite genres. I always worried this was a little self-indulgent: taking a day to cover a specific type of story when most of the class was devoted to the basics of fiction. But I had already covered The Freytag. We had talked about scene, point of view, showing and telling.
When we discussed “The Rememberer,” we identified the story’s inciting incident (the lover turns into an ape), plot points (for example: people call the house, asking where he is), and climax (the narrator decides to let her lover free in the ocean, before he disappears from her vision). But most of all, I wanted my students to know they could write about anything, real or unreal. I wanted to teach them that as long as they wrote with authority and had control over their own fictional worlds, there were no limits to the shapes and subjects their stories could take on.
Authority. “The Rememberer” is a lesson in writing with authority. It begins: “My lover is experiencing reverse evolution.” Bam. Bender introduces the rules of her story’s world at once, and lets the unreal premise drive the rest of the narrative. It takes great confidence to undo the course of human evolution in a six-word sentence, but Bender does it. And, because of her conviction, we follow her into the world she has created for us.
The narrator goes on to say: “I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape.” Bender explains the unreal occurrence enough that it makes sense to the characters, in this context. We understand its place in the reality of the story. The narrator admits that she is “no scientist,” but she knows enough to understand that if her boyfriend continues his reverse evolution at this rate—she is going to lose him, and soon. She goes to a professor at a community college for more information on human evolution, and (for a fee) he gives her a sloppy and incorrect timeline. She tells no one what is happening. When people call the house and ask for her boyfriend, she informs them he has fallen ill. The narrator thinks that her lover is morphing into ever-simpler animal forms. Thanks to the combination of the sheer confidence that shimmers through Bender’s prose and a series of carefully placed details, we trust in the reality of the de-evolving lover within the tightly drawn world of this story.
Detail. In our recent interview with her, Kelly Link discussed the importance of detail to create believability in stories with unreal elements. Bender does this swiftly and seamlessly. For writers of realist and nonrealist stories alike, “The Rememberer” contains many examples of detail being used to build the bones of the story. Let’s pick one to follow: the baking pan in which the narrator’s now-reptilian lover resides. First, we see him as a sea turtle: “ . . . on the counter, in a baking pan filled with saltwater.” When her boyfriend turns into a salamander, the narrator pours a little honey (which he used to love) into the pan. And, finally, the baking dish serves as the vehicle of his escape: “At the water’s edge, I stoop down and place the whole pan on the tip of a baby wave. It floats well, a cooking boat, for someone to find washed up on shore and to make cookies in, a lucky catch for a poor soul with all the ingredients but no container.” Detail lends believability to the story by allowing the reader to see the world as the narrator might. We picture the physical components of her morphing world, as filtered through her unique consciousness.
The unreal and the real. In an interview we did with Aimee Bender herself, she discussed how the magical elements in her stories are a complex means into talking about real, emotional content. I asked her about “The Rememberer” in particular, and she said: “In that story it was a way for me to write about/think about what loss is and what it means to lose someone. At the time I was going through a breakup, my grandmother was dying and my mother kept talking about how it was like watching someone go back to infancy, and I’d had a dream years before about reverse evolution and I think it all coalesced to some degree.” Reverse evolution in this story is not working as a flat metaphor, but as a way to address multiple emotional realities.
You can feel all of them coming to a point in the moment when the narrator decides to set her lover free: “Because I cannot bear to look down into the water and not be able to find him at all, to search the tiny waves with a microscope lens and to locate my lover, the one-celled wonder, bloated and blind, brainless, benign, heading clear and small, like an eye-floater into nothingness.” Here, Bender has given loss a physical form but, appropriately enough, it is an ever-changing one, constantly redefining itself and never fully within the narrator’s grasp.
Of course, it’s useful to note that the man who turns into a series of animals felt keenly the burden of being human. There is a long flashback in the middle of the story, in which he complains to his girlfriend that people “think far too much.” The next day, he wakes up an ape.
All of these lessons can be applied to stories of any genre. Even in realist stories, you (usually) want the plot to operate on multiple levels, rather than simply serving as metaphor. Even for writers who strictly follow the realist tradition, “The Rememberer” is a good lesson in sticking to your guns. Writing any story involves a tacit agreement to do something crazy—to conjure a world and its characters entirely from your mind. You have to commit to it. You need a complete sense of the narrative you are creating and confidence in your idea in order for it to turn out right. In the end, the most valuable lesson I hoped “The Rememberer” would teach my students was to just go for it. After all: the stories that teach us the most are often the ones that give us permission to indulge our own fascinations, not the ones we mimic most exactly.