A Relationship is Not an Economy

A Relationship is Not an Economy

In The Gift, which Margaret Atwood succinctly summarizes as a “classic study of gift giving and its relationship to art,” Lewis Hyde describes the principles of gifts, primarily that the gift must transfer, and “the feeling that if a gift is not treated as such, if one form of property is converted into another, something horrible will happen.” Aimee Bender’s “The Red Ribbon” is that what-if story—quiet, subtle, horrific, and sad—a cautionary tale about what happens when you treat a relationship as an economy and trade the gifts of love for the tit-for-tat of commodity exchange.

The story has a simple enough set-up: a long-married couple try their hands and other parts at a prostitution fantasy. It centers on Janet, a stay-at-home wife out of practice at being generous. Her husband is Daniel, a shoe company businessman who doesn’t grasp the can of socioeconomic worms he opens with his fantasy. The setting, for its part, is both timely and timeless. We know months and dates and that Janet is from Michigan, but Bender provides no year, current location, or clear historical landmarks. This seems to be Everytown USA, and Janet seems to be a fifties or sixties housewife, but this could just as easily be the present and only made to feel retrograde. This vague setting is unsettling. It’s as if we’re in an economic fairy realm, one where the husband supports two people with an undefined job at a shoe company and the wife sleeps in, shops in the women’s impulse department, and cooks dinner. Not the fifties themselves, but the idea of the fifties, the concept of their home economics.

A husband paying his wife for sex could be somewhat innocent (albeit potentially treacherous) for another relationship, but for Janet and Daniel it brings doom. The reasons are twofold. First, Janet seems to have already been unhappy in her role, and the fantasy forces her to realize it  by making payment for her body literal instead of implied. Second, and not unrelated to the first, the characters violate all the rules of gifts and then some. Every element of “The Red Ribbon” seems custom built to lend this meaning to the story, to illustrate what can happen when you don’t treat love as a gift. From the setting, structure, and character arc all the way down to the dialogue, gestures, and foundational grammar, Bender directly and indirectly layers in meaning until the quietly devastating ending lands heavy with its weight.

The Macroeconomics of Meaning-Making

The most obvious methods of meaning-making in “The Red Ribbon” are those at the macro level: the structure, character arcs, and inclusion of other tales—the elements that directly state the meaning and form the frame that the subtler, lower-level elements fill.

Story in a Story in a Story

In “The Red Ribbon,” Bender stuffs a story in a story into her narrative, thereby preparing us a thematic turducken. The deboned duck is when she gives Janet’s reaction to the titular horror story in which a woman wears a ribbon around her neck until one night her husband removes it and her head falls off. The tale has many versions, and Bender chooses the one that is most meaningful to Janet, that gives the most cause for grievance to the wife. The story maddened Janet when she was young because the husband didn’t respect his wife’s one rule. She takes a more sympathetic stance towards the end of the story and thinks that the man just hadn’t known what was coming, had only wanted her “to give up the last thread of cover so she would stand before him nude and he could make love to her entire skin,” which of course made her head roll.

The allusion (the deboned chicken of the turducken) is worked in more subtly at the start of the story. The restaurant where Daniel shares his fantasy is named L’Oiseau d’Or, “The Golden Bird,” and the plates are etched with “tiny gold birds.” “The Golden Bird” is a fairy tale like many others: it features a series of gifts and accompanying rules that are disobeyed by its characters until they follow them to great profit. Brothers are told they’ll see two things, one fancy and one plain (two inns, two cages, two saddles) and they must choose the plain. The first two brothers can’t help themselves and reach for the immediate reward. In Bender’s story, Janet and Daniel always reach for the most elegant thing. And at the end of the tale, the fox asks a brother to cut off his head and feet, a thing that must be done to return the fox to his human state. It’s possible that Janet needed to lose her head for her and Daniel to see her clearly.

The tone and atmosphere of “The Red Ribbon” is also inherited from fairy tales, which is Bender’s calling card. This begins with the phrase “It began with his fantasy,” a once-upon-a-time-esque opener that switches us into bedtime story mode. Later, on the evening of Janet’s first sale, Daniels’s shoes go “clip-clop-clip” to the house, and when they renegotiate the rate-per-copulation he says that’s “it-it-it.” This fairy tale tone runs counter to reality at moments such as when Janet and Daniel stay “at the spot on the carpet for hours.” I don’t know if you’ve had the pleasure of pleasure on the carpet, but I can’t imagine doing it for hours before moving to furniture. Their carpet had better be soft-soft-soft. The tone and atmosphere mirror the twin fairy tales of the couple’s marital life and their temporarily negotiated kink dynamic and forms a kind of lofty prophylactic against the truth that is not fully removed until the final scene.

“Folk tales are like collective dreams,” Hyde tells us. “They are told in the kind of voice we hear at the edge of sleep, mingling the facts of our lives with their images in the psyche.” By including a character’s response to one folk tale and an allusion to another, and by employing the tone of fairy tales to tell the story of a modern couple, Bender mingles realism with the collective recollections and psychic images of folk tales and accepts their meanings into her own.

Story Structure as Accounting

“The Red Ribbon” moves in four-four economic time and can perhaps be best visualized as a ledger. Bender is specific about money and dates, so I’ll work backwards from the last given, November 9. Three weeks pass in descriptive summaries, and days are narrated for the first dinner, the first enactment, the renegotiation, and the final payment. The third weekday of the story is a Wednesday, and the first time was the day before. I’ll estimate, then, that Janet’s first appointment with her client was on Tuesday, October 23, fiscal year unknown.

Bender specifies neither the cost of the turtlenecks nor Janet’s final sum. It’s just like a literary short story, to refuse a tidy register, to leave us unbalanced with only a tentative sense of the characters’ fates. Realism can be frustrating, from an accounting perspective. Of course, another interpretation is that, in truth, Janet has nothing at the end.

Character as Commodity

“The Red Ribbon” is a story in which objects are personified and persons are objectified. The pâté is to arrive “dressed in its sprig of parsley” (emphasis mine), the mall is “big and curvy” (like the nationally average body), and the cash “poked out its green fingers.” While the objects are enlivened, Janet’s body is itemized, cataloged for its parts. She makes note of “how her upper lip fit inside her lower lip” and thinks of her feet and elbows and throat with their part-specific lotions as like “different kinds of soil that need to be tilled with different tools.”

In the beginning, Janet is a stay-at-home object on the same linguistic level as parsley. As the fantasy plays out, she discovers her resentment and is horrified by its form. And the shape of that form, the manner of object that she’s become, is a result of how she and Daniel mistreat gifts.

  • I: Dinner and a Suggestion

     Daniel’s suggestion roots itself in Janet as she sits in the back on the way home. She has her recurrent fantasy that he is her chauffeur, and she feels herself “take shape” as she admires her reflection. By implication, she must have been feeling shapeless before. “The gift moves toward the empty place,” Hyde writes. Janet was so empty she wasn’t there.

  • II: The Bath

    Janet catalogues the parts that make up her body and emerges “stenciled by a lace nightgown,” her outline sketched around the shape formed in the car. The thought of the fantasy makes her jittery, and she medicates herself to sleep.

  • III: First Enactment

    The following day, Janet tries on a bustier and forces the saleswoman to sell it to her without taking it off. She leaves the store feeling “emboldened,” a word that suggests she’s both filled with confidence and a person set in bold typeface. When Daniel returns from work, she surprises him with the bustier on, the hooks “fastened one notch off in the back so that she seemed a bit crooked.” The shape that formed in the car and was outlined by the nightgown is now filled in and covered with the bustier, but that shape is still askance. She approaches with feigned confidence, “her upper lip trembling.” While undressing him, she is filled “with an enormous terror” and has to stop for air. “For a week,” she whispers. “I would love a week,” he says, “adding figures fast in his head.”

  • IV: Second Enactment

    Janet is bolder now, more playful. She sings naked and evades Daniel until he puts his hand over her mouth and she slaps his thighs. Afterwards, she feels like she’s shared something “fearfully intimate with him.” What she shared was the gift of the shape she’s discovering, a form new and foreign to her. This, for you afficionados out there, is the time for aftercare, and it doesn’t occur. Daniel hands her $100 and goes to the bathroom.

    When two people connect over a mutually shared fetish, one where they each provide one side, the foot fetishist and the fetishee, the dominant and the submissive, the urinator and the urinated, there occurs an exchange of gifts. Janet shares something with Daniel during the first week, especially during this erotically violent exchange, and he is too clueless to notice. When he doesn’t, she develops separately instead of the two of them bonding.

  • V: Dinner and a Renegotiation

    After the original sin of the whole arrangement, this is where Janet first violates the principles of gifts through her choices and actions. While there’s been quite a bit of lurking dread, a sense that this is not going to go well, things have been mostly positive so far. Both parties have seemed enthused, much sexiness has been shared, and Janet now has nine hundred dollars burning a hole in her pocket, yearning to move on, to circulate, to be used. What will she do with it? What will be her final form?

    What she does is buy a hamburger, yell at a homeless man asking for change, and convince Daniel to continue when he is clearly done. The hamburger’s juice “dripped down, red-brown, and left a stain on her wrist”; it does not flow on. When she yells at the homeless man to not God-bless her, he says he has “no interest” in doing so; she’s denied the beggar’s bowl, refused to enter into the interdependence of gifts, and doesn’t want or receive a blessing. And when she makes Daniel dinner, it’s not as a return gift but as a means of persuading him, to “reinvest for greater profit later.” “A gift that cannot be given away ceases to be a gift,” Hyde writes. Janet has refused the gift cycle.

    At the dinner, Janet adjusts “the cuffs of her suit jacket so that the buttons lined up right with the gateway into her hand.” Her hand, that which gives and takes, is in line with a suit, a symbol of business. Yet though her shape is aligned, it’s still two-dimensional and easily toppled. When she tells Daniel she “can’t seem to summon up any desire right now to do it without payment,” he’s taken aback and she loses her nerve. She gets talked down from $50 per time to $20 then begs for $30 and settles for $25 and two weeks instead of one. Janet and Daniel have begun to see her nascent shape and are shaken.

  • VI: Second Week

    Now Janet initiates sex daily. She’s so “ravenously hungry for contact” that Daniel begs off. She feels pathetic to have to do it four times now to each one, and the total is smaller but “a clear exchange nonetheless.” On Sunday Daniel says it’s his day off, and Janet pays to play with herself. “If the week before had been largely his fantasy enacted,” Bender writes, “now it was all hers.” It’s so much hers that she engages in it separately, paying for an act of self-love that shouldn’t carry a price tag. When Daniel chooses to not participate and Janet chooses to continue without him, the two seal themselves off and solidify separately. Janet’s now an object with the power and desire to self-objectify.

  • VII: Third Week

    Janet notices she’s started “to see the entire world in terms of currencies.” She imagines charging friends for lunches, strangers for not stepping aside, her father for one-sided conversations. She remembers her high school volunteer work and compares it to how even washing a dish irritates her now unless Daniel also washes one. She realizes she’s “twenty-four hour,” “every-cell resentment,” that’s she’s lost her generosity and doesn’t know how to find it. This fills her with a “sparkling panic, painful and visceral.” Janet is “every-cell resentment” because her body is made up of things that should be gifts but are treated as possessions or converted into them. The gifts are bitter to be unable to leave.

    Here Bender inserts meaning by having Janet reflect on herself (literally, as she speaks to the wall and mirror). This couldn’t happen earlier because Janet wasn’t solid enough to self-reflect. What Janet realizes is that she’s lost the ability to give a gift, the purest form of which requires that you expect nothing specific in return. “Now, it is true, that something often comes back when a gift is given,” Hyde writes, “but if this were made an explicit condition of the exchange, it wouldn’t be a gift.” The gift may circle back to you as a gift from the recipient, another person, or the universe, but if you expect something in immediate return you’ve bought something, not given something.

  • VIII: The Saleslady

    The day after Janet receives her last payment, she heads to a department store at the mall. On the way, a brief point of view shift occurs and shows us how “to passersby it seemed vaguely like she was masturbating” when she touches the money. Not only can Janet reflect on herself, now we can also look at her from the outside, and when she touches the money it looks like masturbation because the money’s an extension of her body.

    In the store, she looks for and selects a saleslady to ask a series of questions that escalate in how personal they are and end at how regularly she orgasms with her boyfriend. The woman is shocked and nervous, and it’s only when Janet tells her it’s for a study and offers her the absurd sum of $200 that she tells her. If you’re keeping count, that’s two sessions at $100 each, or eight at $25; receiving information about this woman’s intimate life is so valuable it’s the equivalent to Janet of having sex two to eight times.

    Janet has switched roles with Daniel; the object is now the objectifier. She’s not buying sex, but when sex is as taboo as it seems to be here, information about sex is just as intimate and Janet has relegated another woman into the role of an object. She admires how the ribbon tied around the woman’s neck is “the perfect shade to bring out the red in her lips and the brown of her eyes” and how the “delicate mole punctuating the tip of her eyebrow looked just like Venus at the tip of a crescent moon” (this mole echoes the one on the curve of Janet’s neck, a mole less perfectly placed). Janet doesn’t give the saleslady a compliment or a tip; she again buys that which should not be bought.

  • IX: Literary Analysis

    After the saleslady takes the money and walks away, a manager approaches to help Janet. Here, they discuss the horror story and talk relatively frankly about how the point of clothing is that it eventually comes off. Janet looks at the other saleslady and thinks it’s true, “that ribbon was practically made to be removed.” It’s as if by paying for sexual information, Janet has broken the taboo, and now the erotic is as quotidian as bread.

  • X: Dinner and a Conclusion

    The story ends with a conversation in which Janet and Daniel seem to recognize the shape that she and their relationship have taken. What was always there but seemingly unacknowledged, the fact that Janet was so embittered by her objectification that she’d lost her good nature and sense of self, has been revealed. The ribbon has been untied from the neck of their relationship, and its head can never be put back on.

In the introduction to The Gift, Hyde sets aside the negative side of gifts, “gifts that leave an oppressive sense of obligation, gifts that manipulate or humiliate, gifts that establish and maintain hierarchies.” I also focus mostly in this essay on the positive effects of gifts, but we should note that while Janet’s choices further entrench her in her bitter position, she was already playing a rigged hierarchy. The gifts that Daniel gives Janet, her stay-at-home lifestyle and the money, can be viewed as examples of Hyde’s negative gifts. It might not matter that Daniel asks Janet if she wants to go back to work, implying that they decided together that she wouldn’t. If his gifts were originally intended as such, over the years the two of them have forgotten that fact and the gifts have taken on the rancorous smell of societal roles.

And though Daniel’s arc takes place mostly off the page and is largely the stereotypical one for a husband in a sexual fantasy (from eyes huge at getting to do it to I want to watch TV), he doesn’t do any better with gifts. True, he gives Janet a card with a gushy saying on their wedding day, buys her meals with no explicit expectation for sex, and buys his friend a weekly lunch, but there’s a performative aspect to his generosity, as if he enjoys playing the role of the big man who gives the big gifts, who provides his wife with a credit card and pays for lunch with a hundred dollar bill. There’s an expectation for gratitude and admiration. This surfaces in his moment of frustration when Janet asks for fifty dollars during the renegotiation and he delivers the entitled husband’s “Do you have any idea how hard I am working my ass off?”

Neither Janet nor Daniel come off great here, but we shouldn’t blame them. This is the way of such things sometimes—relationships are undone by time, bitterness, and burdens. It’s neither of their faults, neither seems to have been gifted with models of alternative power dynamics or the self-awareness to notice and correct their behavior. Still, by disobeying the rules of gifts and treating their bond as a commodity, they ensure that their relationship withers rather than grows.

Better Meaning Through Microeconomics

With the allusions, structure, and character arcs, the meaning of “The Red Ribbon” is fairly clear. But what we have with those elements is only the basic parts of the meal. It’s in the lower-level ingredients like details, dialogue, gestures, and grammar that Bender’s art really shows. They are the flavors and procedures that enhance the dish, that set it apart as the work of a master chef. There’s a reason cooking shows judge contestants based on taste and presentation and not on the plate. These elements allow Bender to inject meaning into the reader’s subconscious, deepening the messages she more directly states elsewhere.

Financial Correlative

The details in “The Red Ribbon” are perfectly selected to reflect the nature of gifts, especially the descriptions of money and receipts. When Janet imagines the fantasy, she pictures Daniel’s erection with “a green bill wrapped around it.” After their first week and lack of bonding, however, she irons the bills “until they were so crisp they could be in a salad.” Later, when she purchases the information from the saleslady, Janet listens to “the printing out receipts over the sounds of pens signing shiny credit card paper that curls into itself;” money is abstracted into receipts yet still curling. And again, when she buys the turtlenecks the manager flattens the receipt for her to sign. The money wants to circle back as a gift, to curl and join, but it’s flattened.

Part of the reason Janet’s and Daniel’s relationship fails is that they turn their love into a line instead of leaving it as a circle. In The Gift, Hyde describes how over our lives our gift circles tend to expand from one to two to many, and he shares D.H. Lawrence’s concept of the égoisme à deux of some married couples, “people who get just so far in the expansion of the self and then close down for a lifetime, opening up for neither children, nor the group, nor the gods.” Janet and Daniel don’t have children, Janet appears to have no friends, they have no pets, and an open relationship doesn’t seem to be a circle-enlarging option for them. They’ve appeared to be a circle of two for a long time, but during this story it’s revealed they’ve only been a line segment, the discontentment traveling back and forth between its endpoints like a current, and in the end they separate into two closed loops of one.

Interrogative Rate of Exchange

The story’s dialogue also pulls its weight in terms of adding meaning. It’s riddled with questions. There are 118 dialogue lines and 208 punctuation marks in those lines (125 periods or commas, 77 question marks, 2 em dashes, and 4 exclamation marks). They break down as follows:

I’ve made no analysis of this across stories, but 0.6 question marks per period or comma seems like a high level of interrogatory saturation. The story reaches peak inquisitiveness at moments when Janet prices something she shouldn’t. When Janet and Daniel renegotiate their rate and she informs him that “nothing is its own reward for me,” he asks six questions at once:

“Twenty?” he said. “Twenty?” […] “Twenty?” Jesus. I suppose I could do twenty for another week, but I don’t like it. I don’t want to. And is nothing its own reward, Janet? Really? Isn’t love its own reward?”

Later, when Janet offers the saleslady the two hundred dollars, the saleslady asks three:

“Two hundred dollars?” […] For one question? Are you serious?”

Hyde writes that “The equivalence of the counter-gift is left to the giver.” Gifts are not supposed to be bartered for, and Janet has placed prices on things that are commonly understood to be gifts. It’s as if her conversation partners cannot compute what she is saying.

The interrogative is what stands out, but the story turns on the declarative. During their second enactment, Daniel says, “My wife doesn’t love me.” It’s a joke told in the midst of the fantasy, but the line is pregnant with meaning, as can occur in roleplay, and at the end they’ve each processed the words and formed a different narrative. She paraphrases it as “She does not love you very well” and he as “She doesn’t love me at all.” Janet thinks she has $1045 and a love that is imperfect but well. Daniel thinks he’s lost $1325 and all the love of his partner.

Futile and Wodeful Gestures

“It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people,” Hyde writes, “while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection.” By turning their relationship into a free market economy, Janet and Daniel destroy their bond. This disconnection is acutely felt in the rhythm of their gestures across the meals they eat together, from their first at the restaurant to their last at home, each one decreasing in fanciness, from pâté to spaghetti, from fantasy to reality, and, as the sign in Janet’s adolescent bedroom said when two letters fell off, from WONDERFUL to WODEFUL.

  • I: Dinner and Wine at L’Oiseau d’Or

    Daniel blushes and reaches to clasp Janet’s hand, but she crosses her legs and watches the waiters come and go. Were they truly close, and were he the sort of person to voice his fantasy confidently, and were she the sort who would listen without wondering what’s in it for her, they could reach out and stroke each other’s palms, whisper about the filthiness and go straight to the bank. Instead, Daniel swirls “fork lines into his white sauce” and Janet observes the other people nearby and wishes to join their conversations instead.

  • II: Rosemary Lamb and Chocolate Nut Truffles

    During the meal that Janet cooks to fatten Daniel up for the renegotiation, the two of them move together and apart:

    • She massages his shoulders, and he warms his palms on his mug.
    • He moves his chair closer and places his coffee-warm hand “on her collarbone, tracing the line with his finger,” but she sits up and he puts his hand on the table.
    • When she cries, he leans and kisses her forehead and she moves closer and “pressed him desperately to her.”

    When the terms are settled, they hug, he goes to watch TV, and she writes down the date, renegotiated cost, and current total on a piece of paper. They have tried to bond, but they start and end the scene apart. When they touch it’s a brief respite and you have to wonder if they’ve connected or if they’ve only pushed their bodies together in a vain attempt.

  • III: Spaghetti and Red Sauce from a Jar

    Janet wears her new wealth in the form of the fuchsia turtleneck, and she doesn’t pass the gift back to Daniel in the form of a nice meal to mark the end of their arrangement; instead, she prepares spaghetti. Daniel does the dishes and runs “his finger under the tap, back and forth,” and Janet brushes crumbs into her palm. She touches his arm and reassures him that she loves him, but he places a dish “carefully in the dish rack, lining the circle up with the bent wire.” It’s as if Daniel has been mulling their relationship over, and he now sees it, the circle of a healthy love and the bent wire of theirs.

At the beginning of the story it seems as if the fantasy might bring Janet and Daniel together, but by the end it hasn’t. Their love has been converted into a commodity, and while gifts bind people together, payments set them at arm’s length. “Another way to describe the motion of the gift is to say that a gift must always be used up, consumed, eaten,” Hyde writes. The meals Janet and Daniel eat are stand-ins for more abstract gifts, the performative gift of the meal given to Janet, the false gift of the meal given to Daniel, and the last spaghetti that is a gift to no one, “a meal without passion” as Hyde puts it, “a consumption that leads to neither satiation nor fire.”

The Cumulative Cost of Grammar

“The Red Ribbon” is replete with grammatical and rhetorical devices that reinforce meaning and mirror the fact that Janet is burdened by gifts that cannot move. The most recurrent of these are those tacked onto the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence with a comma, as if Bender is dressing the story in a red ribbon, black bustier, or fuchsia turtleneck. I know grammar and rhetoric aren’t everybody’s favorite meals, but bear with me as I pass the ribbon of Bender’s craft through the wonky eye of the needle and out into the meaning and end of the story.

  • I: Introductory Phrases

    At the beginning of most of the sections and some of the paragraphs, Bender lays the foundation for the rest of the meaning accrual with introductory phrases that establish the time or place at which the section occurs, for example, “On Wednesday” and “At home that night.” The effect here is partly practical; when it’s time for Bender to shift our attention, we are simply and efficiently shuttled. Yet by beginning sections this way, Bender also draws our attention to the weight of her characters’ history.

  • II: Appositives

    The appositives, words or phrases that restate and expand on another, begin at the beginning of the story, with the first sentence: “It began with his fantasy, told to her one night over dinner and wine at L’Oiseau d’Or, a French restaurant with tiny gold birds etched into every plate and bowl.” The last phrase, the one that begins with “a French restaurant,” gives us the meaning of L’Oiseau d’Or. The other appositives in the story often center on people and time, for example, “the saleslady, Tina, younger and suppler” and “Now, years later.” Each minor character in the story has a defined role just like Janet, and the times almost multiply each other, as if to reflect the exponential growth of resentment that occurs when people and love are not treated as a gift.

  • III: Participial Phrases

    Bender also includes participial phrases at the end of many sentences (for example, “for over twenty minutes, staring at her torso”) and in dialogue tags such as “said Janet, taking the bag.” Tags with trailing participial phrases occur twenty-five times in the story, a pattern as prevalent as the question marks, as if the phrases are yearning for more, as discontent with the status quo as Janet. Bender’s grammar isn’t complete until her sentences are wrapped in phrases, the two ends of the ribbon tied at the back of the neck.

  • IV: Polysyndeton

    Once her sentences are fully wrapped, Bender fills them until they overflow. This is accomplished through polysyndeton, the rhetorical device in which you repeat conjunctions between sentence elements for a breathless or, in this case, greedy effect. See the following example (emphasis mine, with coordinating conjunctions highlighted):

    She laughed with big red smudge-free lips and fed him and let him watch four sitcoms in a row, but before he fell asleep she was on him again and said he didn’t have to do anything at all but just be still and sleepy and she would complete all the movement.

    Polysyndeton is possibly the most consumerist of devices. It’s a tool well suited to characters who want the finest clothes and food and respect money can buy.

  • V: Parallelism and Fragments

    After all the phrases and conjunctions, after all the weight of all that meaning-infusing, Bender’s sentences come unraveled, unwrapped, undone. See following example:

    She could feel the turtleneck, climbing up to cover her neck, her shoulders, her torso. Pants, covering up her legs. Socks, over her feet. Underwear, over her pubic hair. A bra, over her breasts.

    The commas change into periods. The pauses into full stops. The phrases into fragments linked by parallelism and the way they pile meaning onto the story and weight onto Janet.

In The Gift, Hyde describes “the sense of imbalance, of shifting weight, that always marks a gift exchange.” Bender’s sentence structures and rhetorical devices are the grammatical equivalent of that weight. Scene after scene, phrase after phrase, and fragment after fragment Bender builds meaning into the story and piles weight onto Janet until everything comes apart in the final lyric paragraph, itself a rhetorical smorgasbord that uses polysyndeton, appositives, and parallelism.

“Are you leaving?” she said, and her voice rose, sharp.

“No.” But there was a softness to his tone that implied a question, or the very first hint of a question mark, and she could see, suddenly, that they were on their way to leaving already, that this conversation was only a walking through a door already open, and once those eyes left they were not going to return and the clothing would be no barrier at all, nothing, shreds, tissue, for all the pain then rushing in.

“A gift that cannot move loses its gift properties,” Hyde writes. “When someone tries to dam up the river, one of two things will happen: either it will stagnate or it will fill the person up until he bursts.” Janet and Daniel have dammed the flow, and Janet is full to burst, the turtleneck of the language wrapped around her compartmentalized body, her bundle of blocked and disconnected gifts. And when her voice rises, sharp, it cuts off the turtleneck and everything comes apart.

A Work of Art Is a Gift and so Is a Life and so Is a Country

There’s an irony in how I came by my now dog-eared copy of The Gift. I was working in publishing at a literary agency, circa 2008, and I had a networking lunch with a young editor at Vintage, its publishing house. It was at the time when I was still interested in being an agent, though I’m not sure now if I ever really wanted to or if lunches and book parties and evaluating manuscripts just appealed to my higher level of narcissism at the time. A week or two after the lunch, I, in what I now look back on as an embarrassingly uncouth move, emailed the editor to ask for a free copy of The Gift. Instead of accepting the lunch itself as the gift and allowing my acquaintance with the editor to grow, I cashed in on it. It’s emblematic of why I left publishing: I couldn’t exist in it without seeing writing as a business where the only thing that matters is what sells. I could not appreciate the gray area that books enter when they leave the artists’ hands and enter the publishing industry, their quantum state as both gift and commodity.

“The Red Ribbon” is a gift of a short story in which Bender couldn’t have better illustrated the principles of gifts if she’d worked from a checklist. Each of its elements is fine-tuned to state or suggest meaning. It’s an elegant chronicling of the dissolution of a marriage, James Salter by way of the Brothers Grimm or Mary Gaitskill by way of Angela Carter, or, well, Aimee Bender. It’s a thoroughly crafted tale that travels the dangerous border between love and financials with only the inherited gift of folk tale wisdom as its guide. Forgive me if I’ve objectified the story a bit here; it’s just that, like the saleslady’s mole, its meaning-making and craft are perfection.

“The gifted artist contains the vitality of his gift within the work,” Hyde writes in The Gift. “Works we come to treasure are those which transmit that vitality and revive the soul.” Every time I revisit “The Red Ribbon” it revives me. It revives my appreciation of craft, reminds me, as I look past the novel I spent the better part of the last decade on, that fiction is a gift and the time we’re privileged to have to work on it should be treated as such. It reminds me of the irony that when I write a piece like this it takes me away from creating fiction (“the gift is lost in self-consciousness,” Hyde writes, yet here I am). It revives my gratitude for my relationship, reminds me, as my relationship transitions from the lust of its early days into the hopefully long-lasting love of its present and future, and as my partner transitions into a busier role at work and I into being a stay-at-home partner, that love is a gift that is refreshed by being treated as such.

Beyond me, though, beyond my circle of two plus three cats, a puppy, family, and friends, rereading “The Red Ribbon” and The Gift revives my sense of obligation to our nation and world. Like the brothers who go into the luxurious inn in “The Golden Bird” and forget their country, Janet and Daniel enter the luxurious life of consumerism and the comfortable middle class and forget the plain materials with which life and the social safety net are woven: the giving of gifts, the receiving of gifts, the selfless helping of others that ends up benefitting the self. It’s a kind of parable for the question we’ll have to answer as we approach an election in the fall, as we try to figure out what our country is or is becoming during and after this pandemic, and as we enter, at best, a recession: is the American dream a good or a gift?

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