Willful Creatures Stories by Aimee Bender. Doubleday & Company. 208 pages.
Recently, Garrison Keilor mentioned a new writer, Aimee Bender on his daily post, “The Writer’s Almanac.” Garrison noted that Bender’s quirky and enigmatic books were causing quite a stir on the west coast – short stories about families with pumpkin heads and little boys who are born with fingers shaped like keys. An Internet search informed me that Aimee’s books contained strange parables that often left the reader both puzzled and fascinated. I immediately ordered The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, An Invisible Sign of My Own and Willful Creatures Stories.
An Invisible Sign of My Own opens with this paragraph:
“There was this kingdom once where everyone lived forever. They discovered the secret of eternal life, and because of that, there were no cemeteries, no hospitals, no funeral parlors, no books in the bookstore about death and grieving. Instead, the bookstore was full of pamphlets about how to be a righteous citizen without fear of an afterlife.”
I was hooked. For the past two weeks, I have been reading odd fables that often resemble perverse variations of Grimm fairy tales.
In “Off” from Willful Creatures Stories, a determined young woman goes to a party intending to kiss three men: a black-haired one, a red-head and a blond. Her plan has disastrous consequences. Then, there is “Debbieland” where a shy teenager is attacked and humiliated because she wears a skirt that offends some fellow students. In “Fruit Without Words,” a customer at a roadside fruit stand discovers that it is possible to buy words that are composed of the items that they represent.
“Ironhead” is a disturbing tale of a child born with the head of an iron frying pan – born into a family of pumpkin-heads. In “Dearth,” a lonely woman finds seven potatoes in her kitchen; despite all of her efforts to rid herself of them, they return and gradually develop arms, legs and facial features. Willful Creatures also contains “The Leading Man” and the story about the boy with fingers that resemble keys – keys that are destined to open locks that appear throughout the boy’s life.
What is going on here? At present, a great many people are attempting to analyze these stories. I am struck by how many of Bender’s perverse tales appear to be parables that embody the problems that beset all of us. Bender’s protagonists are often victims of alienation and rejection. They are filled with yearnings and a desperate need to “belong” and often, they overcome daunting obstacles only to be disillusioned with their success.
My favorite in the Willful Creatures Stories collection, “Job’s Jobs,” is a marvelous variation of the travails of the biblical Job. A vengeful and unrelenting God pursues Bender’s modern-day Job. Each time that Job acquires success (a writer, a painter, an actor, etc.) God appears and demands that Job relinquish his new career. In addition, God refuses to justify his actions. Finally, Job’s world becomes so small he is left no alternative but to retreat to the infinite world of his inner thoughts.
Although I found some of Bender’s stories inexplicable, I am so pleased with the ones that provide a shrewd insight into life’s uncertainties, problems and mysteries (death, alienation, guilt, etc.) I wholeheartedly recommend these books. If you like Angela Carter, Ambrose Bierce and the poetry of Stephen Crane, you will treasure Aimee Bender.