I like whimsy. Quite a bit, actually, but there comes a point where it’s too much.

Aimee Bender’s fiction contains quite a bit of whimsy/magical realism/etc. One of my favorite short stories by her involves a woman whose boyfriend de-volves into a sea turtle and she keeps him in a pan of salt water in the kitchen. An Invisible Sign Of My Own is rife with this kind of bizarre, twisted fairy tale logic. In fact, it starts with a bedtime story about a kingdom without death, and how one family deals with it when overpopulation becomes too much of an issue.

So much of this book is haunting and lyrical and powerful–Bender excels at the sparse details and brutal-in-their-simplicity sentences that can truly create magic on the page–but it falls apart about halfway through. The narrator does bizarre things that we accept as her reality: knocking on wood until her knuckles bleed, eating soap to stave off sexual feelings, buying a shiny new axe for her birthday.

The book’s world seems to support this as Mona gets a job as an elementary school math teacher for the creepiest group of students ever, led by eerie, aggressive little Lisa Venus. (Great names!) A sense of foreboding in numbers–they predict the age at which many characters will die–adds up (pun, pun) to an excellent atmosphere of tension, but halfway through the book everything changes. Suddenly the numbers don’t have a dark purpose and Mona starts to become less ethereal. Everything comes to a head with some misuse of the birthday axe in the classroom, a development that shatters the book’s logic. Mona suddenly becomes more rational and the chilling, mysterious fog that makes the book so delicious burns off.

If we’re supposed to have patience and understanding for her quirks so early in the book, why should we suddenly care when Mona’s strangeness causes a horrific accident? The ending of the book is a big letdown as well.

Still, Bender is a fantastic writer with an intriguingly dark imagination. Even when the book strains at places–a bad word choice or a plot/tone weakness–it’s still an affecting, weird read and I’m glad to say I couldn’t put it down, even in a Johnny Rocket’s at the mall.