An invisible sign of my own

IN AN AGE when computer-industry millionaires retire at the ripe old age of 25, it's nice to read about kids with no ambition.Especially if they're blessed with a mathematical mind and track-star legsā€”not just poor grades and an insatiable weed habit. In her debut novel, Aimee Bender (author of the well-received short story collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt) tells the story of Mona, a 20-year-old loner with a slacker's penchant for giving up on things and enough good fortune to be asked to teach elementary school math (without a college degree). Mona takes a nonconformist approach to teaching; for example, she hangs a razor-sharp axe in her classroom because it looks like the number seven.

An invisible sign of my own

by Aimee Bender (Doubleday, $22.95)

The vast significance of numbers obsesses Mona, shaping her understanding of everything from depression and death to human connection. Seeking the airy detachment of a mathematician, Mona keeps her boyfriend (and, consequently, her readers) at a distance. In a moment of lazy indifference, she eats a bar of soap. Mona spends the afternoon "spitting up foam into the sink" and thinking "very little of the boyfriend." From then on, she associates the smell of soap with an anti-aphrodisiac, helping her detach from her boyfriend's sexual advances.

The reason for Mona's kooky behavior takes some effort to uncover. Bender keeps us at an arm's length from her main character, only giving us Mona's immediate experiences and abstract philosophizing. Mona's true feelings, unfortunately, remain hidden in a fog of number theory and soap-eating.

Allowing readers to connect with Mona doesn't seem to be Bender's main concern, however. She focuses instead on constructing a richly indulgent platter of symbolism, imagery, and plot intricacies that goes down as smooth as a bottle of liquid Dial. Perhaps the novel's main strength lies in Bender's ability to treat huge, overdone themes such as "death" or "living life to the fullest" in subtle, shadowy ways. Bender packs the simplest descriptions, such as eyes that are "rain-colored against milk foam," with elegance. This book is tight, with near-perfect prose and an impressively complex story, but Mona's distance and ambiguity prevent us from getting emotionally involved.

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