"Willful Creatures: Stories"
(Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselmann SEP 5, 2005)
Aimee Bender's stories are the contemporary descendents of those of the Brothers Grimm, with their surrealism laid on top of human desire and need. In both her previous collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, and this newest one, Willful Creatures, her fiction adopts the tone of fairytales through the straightforward storytelling of the bizarre. Instead of a sausage growing on the end of a nose, Bender gives us potato children and a captive miniature man. Instead of a wicked stepmother, she conjures a collective group of predatory teenage girls. The "willful creatures" of the title take over and change the lives of the people who discover them. While some of these creatures have irons for heads or are made of glass or have keys for fingers, many appear, at least superficially, as ordinary people living routine lives.
One of the most memorable stories is "End of the Line," where a big man buys a little man from a pet shop, keeps him in a cage with a television and sofa, and commits unspeakable cruelties. This classic man's-inhumanity-to-man theme takes on a fantastical twist in Bender's hands. The big man becomes aware of an entire parallel society that remains largely invisible to him and yet which he inexplicably yearns for, even as he commits atrocities against one of its members. As with all fairy tales, its larger meaning depends on the reader. One could read into it a plea for animal rights or a condemnation of racism or, on a more literal level, an exposure of the desperation of loneliness.
"The Meeting" starts out like a Talking Heads song of the late 1970s: "The woman he met. He met a woman. This woman was the woman he met." From this staccato, inane beginning, the story develops the theme of ruined expectations and how they can evolve, without warning, into powerful emotions. Bender's language, so blunt and circular at the beginning, develops as the protagonist does. The final line is perhaps the most beautiful in the collection: "It is these empty spaces you have to watch out for, as they flood up with feeling before you even realize what's happened: before you find yourself, at the base of her spine, different." The contrast between the opening lines and the final one shows part of Bender's virtuosity as a storyteller. She has the ability to first amuse the reader, then carry him along to an often surprising conclusion, all in a few pages.
"Dearth" begins as though the story is already in progress––"The next thing in the morning was the cast-iron pot full of potatoes"––and it evokes the oral storytelling tradition, as though the reader walked into a room of people already listening. This story about a woman who lives alone and who encounters a persistent, magical pot of potatoes that later grow into gangly potato children has the wonder and inevitability of a true fairy tale. The story is less about the creation of odd creatures than about accepting them, for the woman at first does not like the taste or smell of potatoes and yet discovers a deep connection between them and her past.
In "The Case of the Salt and Pepper Shakers," the narrator, a crime investigator, is less concerned with how a husband and wife killed each other at the same moment than he is with the mysterious collection of fourteen salt and pepper shakers he finds in their house. "I Will Pick Out Your Ribs (from My Teeth)" is about a man whose girlfriend repeatedly tries to take her own life. "The Leading Man" follows the life of a boy born with nine of his fingers hardened into keys and his discovery over decades about which doors his fingers open.
Bender often takes colloquial phrases as starting points for her tales. For example, the "pumpkinhead couple" are not dolts; they have pumpkins for heads. Another titled with a profane epithet is about a man who is literally what he is called throughout the narrative: he pursues mothers to have sex with them. These shifts of meaning cause momentary delight that gives way to additional layers of significance.
Readers won't confuse Bender's work with anyone else's. Her inventive plots, coupled with no-nonsense language, result in swiftly told tales. To Bender, contemporary life is as mysterious as words made of xenon, and yet she manages to give us glimpses of raw emotional truth. Staunch realists and literalists might find themselves left cold by Bender's unconventional fiction, but those willing to accept a stark, matter-of-fact surrealism will be enchanted.
- Amazon readers rating: from 19 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Girl in the Flammable Skirt: Stories (1998)
- An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000)
- Willful Creatures: Stories (2005)
- The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010)
- The Color Master: Stories (August 2013)
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- Official website for Aimee Bender
- BoldType page (with short stories) on Aimee Bender
- Tastes Like Chicken interview with Aimee Bender
- Margin interview with Aimee Bender
- Tarpaulin Sky short story by Aimee Bender
- MetroActive review of An Invisible Sign of My Own
- Village Voice review of An Invisible Sign of My Own
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
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About the Author:
Aimee Bender is a graduate of the MFA program for creative writing at U.C. Irvine, California.
Her stories have appeared in Granta, GQ, Story, The Paris Review, Fence, McSweeney's Harper's, The Antioch Review, and several other publications. NPR has also featured her on "This American Life."
She teaches fiction at University of Southern California in the Ph.D. program in Literature and Creative Writing. She resides in Los Angeles.