As soon as I heard that author Aimee Bender was coming out with a new collection of stories, Willful Creatures, I went on-line and reserved a copy at the library. When it arrived, I gulped it down in one sitting. Which is easy to do with a writer like Bender who has mastered the art of sparse and succinct (yet somehow still lush) storytelling.
All her stories, as well as her novel, seem like demented fairy tales. Indeed, I once read that the genre was a heavy influence. Her words have this very particular style about them that is pretty much indescribable. The best thing is to just pick up one of her books and see what I mean for yourself. She may be the most creative writer working today. She uses language in a way that no other author I've come across ever has; each adjective conjures a dream and each metaphor forms a world.
This style is best seen in her novel An Invisible Sign of My Own about a disturbed young woman who suffers from a very particular case of OCD that drives her to knock on things incessantly, obsess over numbers, shy away from physical human contact, and deprive herself of happiness and enjoyment in a misguided attempt to help cure her father's mysterious ailment. You would think a protagonist like this would be a total drag to read about, but Bender somehow makes her accessible and sympathetic to readers. She makes her human.
Indeed, Bender seems to specialize in making fantastical creations into genuine characters. She did so in her debut, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt: Stories, and in Willful Creatures, she does more of the same. This latest effort, however, is darker than any of her other work. Perhaps Bender is maturing and leaving behind the fanciful whims of her youth? This collection is definitely more Brothers Grimm than Disney.
Divided into three parts, the stories range from a little man being kidnapped and trapped in a cage to be used for his new owner's sick sense of enjoyment ("End of the Line") and the cruelty of adolescence ("Debbieland", "Jinx") to the extent of a mother's love ("Dearth") and the antics of mentally unstable, lost women ("Off", "Fruit & Words"). All the stories, while cloaked in levity are pretty damn dark. In this world, people are often cruel -- they murder, mock, beat, and damage the soul.
In the first story "Death Watch", someone is brutally murdered within the first page. "The Case of the Salt & Pepper Shakers", in which a husband and wife kill each other through means inspired by their preferred spices, also ventures into the macabre. However, Bender's manipulation of language balances the grisly aspects, turning them into flights of fancy instead.
The story "Motherfucker," which you would think would be one of the crudest stories, is actually one of the sweetest and most delicate. It follows a man who is a motherfucker, in the most literal sense -- he's got a fetish of sorts for mothers. He pursues a starlet, with a four-year old son and an ex-husband who left her for another man, and unleashes the desire within her.
The whimsical ideas that have become Bender's signature style are rampant in this collection. "Fruit & Words", in which a woman in the desert sells luscious fruit along with words made out of solids, liquids and gases, is a good example of this. As is the story "The Leading Man" about a boy with "fingers shaped like keys." Both stories sound like the stuff of an acid trip and could easily be too weird for mass consumption, yet Bender makes these oddballs seem like the most normal characters in the world.
Part Three seems to be the most experimental, which is a departure from Bender's other works which are, while totally out there, still not this avant-garde. The pieces in this section push the boundaries of her style. To be honest, they weren't my cup of tea. "Hymn", which closes the collection, was totally lost on me.
If you already love Aimee Bender, then you must read Willful Creatures. And if you haven't yet experienced her unique way with words, now here's your chance.
Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender
Hardcover, 224 pages.