To quit well requires an intuitive sense of beauty; you have to feel the moment of turn, right when desire makes an appearance, here is the instant to be severed, whack, this is the moment where quitting is ripe as a peach turning sweet on the vine: snap, the cord is cracked, peach falls to the floor, black and silver with flies.
Such is the story of Mona Gray’s life, dating from her tenth birthday when her father began to fade, when despite his physical health his vitality dimmed and everything about him turned grey and lifeless. Since then, Mona has practiced quitting: dessert, running, egg salad–and the list goes on. Her most damaging withdrawal, however, is in the area of relationships. Relentlessly, mechanically, she guillotines every relationship that begins to mean something to her; she keeps her parents at a distance and mercilessly rebuffs the attentions of the opposite sex. And speaking of sex…
My initial reaction to the first two-thirds of An Invisible Sign of My Own was that Mona Gray was not a normal person. While this is true, she is also not the freak that I am ashamed to say I first deemed her. Nonetheless, certain actions on her part did support my original impression–Example Number One: the way she stops having sex. After three sexual experiences with her boyfriend, Mona, 19, goes into her apartment alone and eats half a bar of soap. Not licks it, mind you, or washes her mouth out with it, but eats it like an apple, carving chunks off with a knife, chewing and swallowing without even thinking about it. (Insert inevitable biological result of eating cleaning product here.) From this time forward, every time her boyfriend–or any other male, for that matter–makes a move towards her in a sexual way, she squelches her desire by washing her hands and reviving the smell that effectively kills any interest in his advances.
For repressed, compulsive Mona, math is the one thing she can’t quit no matter how hard she tries. Numbers order the world; they provide structure in an otherwise chaotic existence. She explains her fascination with math in the most passionate words she can find:
Mix up some numbers and signs, and you get an equation for the way the wind shifts or an axiom for the movement of water, or the height of someone, or for how skin feels. You can account for softness. You can explain everything. Even air is just an arrangement of digits, and with just the right balance–poof! We breathe.
In an effort to gain control over her world, Mona has replaced all the magic and mystery of the cosmos with an identifiable series of operations; likewise, she has squeezed the wonder, the excitement out of living, leaving herself only a withered, soulless existence. At 20 years of age, Mona Gray is biding time until she can die.
Her plan works well enough until Benjamin Smith wanders into her life. A elementary school science teacher with an unabashed love of his subject (and the chemical burns on his arms to prove it), he refuses to accept Mona’s repeated rebuffs. Benjamin constitutes an un-ignorable presence in her life, one she can’t remove or forget, and eventually the realization dawns on her that she doesn’t want to. When Mona tells Benjamin not to let her go to the bathroom while they’re together, the first milestone in her return to the land of the living has been reached.
In An Invisible Sign of My Own, Aimee Bender has created one of the most dynamic characters ever I’ve encountered. Mona’s transformation from self-absorbed automaton to caring, loving human being is radical but intensely believable; Bender organizes her minor epiphanies in such a subtle, lyrical way that we are hardly aware of the metamorphosis until the final grand change in Mona’s personality brings the novel to a triumphant halt. If one can stand the main character’s idiosyncrasies, this book is well worth the read.