Aimee Bender - The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake - interview
Surrealist impulses drive the new novel by LA writer
‘I have a friend who sometimes uses food language to talk about feelings,’ says author Aimee Bender, over the phone from her Los Angeles home, about the genesis of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. ‘She’ll talk about feelings that are “undigested” or “unmetabolised” or “unprocessed”, and I think there might have been a link in my mind between talk about food and the emotional life of a person.’
In short-story writer Bender’s second novel in 13 years, a young girl, Rose Edelstein, discovers that she has a remarkable gift for tasting with every bite the feelings of the person who has prepared her food. It causes her immense confusion and distress, as she begins to carry the emotional burden of everyone from her domestic goddess mother – who buries intense loneliness beneath layers of denial – to whole factories full of workers unhappily churning out processed junk foods.
The book initially reads like the familiar tale of a cosy, suburban middle-class LA household concealing frustrated lives behind an outwardly-cheery veneer. But by kicking the narrative left with the surrealist twist of Rose’s psychic tastebuds – superhuman talents seem to run in the family – it becomes so much more: an unpredictable meeting of modern magic and melancholic realism, whose narrative slowly shifts towards Rose’s intellectually gifted but odd and detached older brother Joseph.
A surrealist impulse – or ‘going in a side-door’ as she puts it – is a theme in all of Bender’s work, from her acclaimed 1998 debut shorts collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt through several other titles including her only other novel to date, 2000’s An Invisible Sign of My Own. ‘I really respond when a story is told kind of skewed,’ she says. ‘I seem to get more emotional access that way.’ Like the precocious kids in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Bender proved to be smart beyond her years. Her mother turned her on to the Theatre of the Absurd while she was still at junior high and while she admits to not really understanding the writings of Beckett or Ionesco as a 10-year-old, her curiosity was piqued. ‘There was something about the strangeness and the sense of limitlessness to how a person could tell a story. It felt like there was a wide-open field of how writers could try stuff out.’
Bender talks about possibly penning a play next, while she continues her day job of teaching creative writing at the University of Southern California. An alternative career could lie in food writing, so luxurious is some of the language she uses to describe the tainted dishes young Rose consumes. ‘I was reading [food writer] MFK Fisher, The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin which is just beautifully written, and all these fun restaurant memoirs,’ says Bender, of her research for the novel. ‘And I love eating. I took a couple of cooking classes because I wanted to be a better cook anyway. It’s a pleasure to write about food. Gertrude Stein would say that she got annoyed if someone would mention in a story that one of their characters had dinner, because she would always think: “well, what did they have for their dinner?”’
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is published by Windmill on Thu 3 Feb.