Sometimes I make grand statements about myself that sound like facts but really aren’t true at all. The one running through my head right now is along the lines of how I hate quirky-for-quirkies-sake, but that Aimee Bender avoided that pratfall with her weird world of Mona Gray in the novel An Invisible Sign of My Own.
But I don’t really hate quirky-for-quirkies sake. I love Miranda July and her quirkiness is an affectation more jarring than a monocle . . . god love her. She once set her short story characters in a living room-based swim class. They did the crawl on the carpeting. She voiced the character of the rabbit in her own movie. Quirky-for-quirkies-sake is a super-stoned Abbi Jacobson barrel-rolling from the waiting room of the dentist’s office on “Broad City.” Me, liar of lies, cackling so mightily that Hulu freezes.
It doesn’t matter how I feel about quirkiness anyway. Like I said, An Invisible Sign of My Own isn’t quirky-for-quirkies-sake. Each quirk feels like an organic quirk, whether it’s Mona’s dad within his own crop semi-circle pushing the bad away or Mona taking a bite out of a bar of soap.
Mona Gray used to be carefree and happy. She was a great runner. Then her father was sidetracked by mental illness and she folded herself into the world of math. Now, still dewy with new adulthood, her mother pushes her out of the nest and she takes over as math teacher at an elementary school where the second-graders quickly become her favorite class. She becomes smitten with Lisa Venus, a student whose mother is dying of Eye Cancer. She also invents a math project in which every week, students find things in nature that represent numbers. For instance, that axe hanging in the front of the classroom — the one Mona inexplicably bought herself for her birthday — could be considered a 7.
Meanwhile, Mona’s mom dreams of vacations while her dad is held hostage by his illness. She’s caught the eye of the science teacher with science burns on his forearms. And she’s captivated by her former math teacher-turned hardware store owner-slash parents’ next door neighbor. Mr. Jones wears a wax number around his neck every day, a numerical indicator of his mood. The higher the digits the better. Mona is one of few people who notices and understands what it means.
Math class takes an ugly turn one day and Mona’s 7 plays a major role in one of the most cringe-causing scenes in all of fiction. This is something I used to categorize in my head, but all that remains of the list is a scene written by Ryu Murakami from In the Miso Soup and Bender’s twee blood bath.
The story is a sweet and charming (invented word alert) melanchomedy just overflowing with good little nooks perfect for shelving one’s disbelief.