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Willful Creatures
by Aimee Bender

Doubleday, 2005.
Fiction, 220pp.

Reviewed by Alexis M. Smith

Willful Creatures: Aimee Bender's American Gothic

     “It is these empty spaces you have to watch out for,” we learn in “The Meeting,” “as they flood up with feeling before you even realize what’s happened.” One of the briefest stories in Aimee Bender’s newest collection, Willful Creatures, “The Meeting” describes a nameless man who falls for a nameless woman, despite the fact that “she did not fit the shape in his brain of the woman he had planned so vigorously and extensively to meet.” A parable on the uncontrollable nature of attraction and intimacy, the story is also a metaphor for the reader’s experience of Bender’s stories: to truly appreciate and enjoy them, we must let go of preconceptions about (narrative) form. There are “empty spaces” in Bender’s stories, but they are better described as gaps—gaps between “the real” and “the surreal.” We are constantly drawn to the difference between Bender’s stories and more traditional narratives, with the startling realization that profound emotion flows freely in that space, never favoring one side over the other.
     The word “surreal” appears all over reviews of Aimee Bender’s books, and more than once on the dust jackets. If by “surrealism” we mean portraits, à la Magritte, of characters with household appliances for heads or keys for fingers, then Bender is a surrealist’s surrealist. Willful Creatures offers, for example, the angular (so they don’t bump heads) sex of the pumpkinheads (in “Ironhead”), and the failed attempts of a woman to abort her cast-iron pot of gestating potato babies (in “Dearth”). In Bender’s narratives the fantastic is a given, sometimes intentionally exaggerated to the point of hyperbole.
     But what is more remarkable is the mundane, which is quietly ominous, like the teenage girl in “Jinx,” separated from her best friend (who is making out with a boy), alone on a busy street corner. Taking the bus home she finds her mother, alone, “sitting there on the couch looking at the backyard. It was like the whole afternoon had got a haircut that was too short.” The girl and her mother sit together, “making sure the backyard stay[s] put,” like two automatons with no one to animate them. Moments like these, in which realism teems with loss and alienation (the crazed antics of the desperate heiress in “Off,” or the vicious inclinations of popular girls in “Debbieland”) are often more disturbing than the allegorical birth defects and the sadistic inclinations of the big man towards his miniature man-pet (in “End of the Line”).
     Willful Creatures, like The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, has elements of the best gothic fiction, in the manner of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find or Joyce Carol Oates’s Where Are You Going Where Have You Been?—not in the sense that Bender is occupied with the decay of American cities, or the sinister beneath suburban facades. Bender, like O’Connor and Oates, displays a passion for the grotesque, a devotion to deformity, whether physical or spiritual, that expresses itself in small moments of perfect, loving detail. The title character of “Ironhead,” for example, the pumpkinheads’ strange child, does not know how to sleep, but spends his nights “smoothing his pillowcase with his jaw” and “breathing out clouds into the cramped sky of his bedroom.” When the woman in “Dearth” finally accepts her potato children, she takes them to a movie where, since “they could not eat the popcorn, they clutched handfuls of it in their fat fingers until it dribbled in soft white shapes to the floor.” These are two of the most poignant stories of the collection, not despite the grotesqueness, but because of it—because of the inseparability of strangeness and empathy.
     What becomes increasingly obvious to me as I read more of Bender’s work is that surrealism is not the active trope. It is the common descriptor because the surreal elements of Bender’s work demand attention in a way that her solid similes and rhythmic cadences don’t. Even the sex (prevalent and protected by a sort of pre-Freudian veneer) doesn’t make it to reviews the way the surrealism does, despite the charming way pants fall open with a sigh (“Ironhead”), or the way the mutants (the key-fingered boy in “The Leading Man,”) make great lovers, or the way female-female interactions are sometimes violent and/or sexually charged (“Off” and “Debbieland”).
     The uncanny, that phantasm of all gothic fiction, expresses, in a way that surrealism only partially suggests, what we respond to in Bender’s stories: it’s that peculiar state of discomfort, that jarring sense of removal, that comes from being situated, then lifted slightly, precisely out of place. Bender’s stories are an out-of-aesthetic experience for us because we have been trained to lose ourselves in narratives. It is never easy to lose oneself in Bender’s stories because her narratives demand that we watch ourselves read them. As Bender discards narrative conventions, we watch our expectations thwarted, we see how we read stories with certain forms in mind, with certain desires. We keep reading because we’re waiting to be resituated, and Bender responds with an emotional potency that, despite our strange surroundings, is viscerally familiar. The familiar in the strange: the uncanny. It’s a gut feeling; it’s primal. It’s finding ourselves in that gap—displaced, but keenly aware—flooded with emotion.
     Willful Creatures achieves what many story collections do not: it leaves an emotional impression that transcends the individual stories, but does not erase them. This may explain why her readers are so devoted: we feel as though we’ve witnessed the miraculous rebirth of the short story. In the final story of the collection, “Hymn,” a generation of “unusual births” proves to be a blessing and a loss—the loss of the previous species. “Hymn,” like “The Meeting,” is also a metaphor for Bender’s stories as a whole: they are a startlingly different breed of narrative. The final directive of “Hymn” and the book: “my genes, my love, are rubber bands and rope; make yourself a structure you can live inside.” Bender’s stories are gothic fiction in which mutation and deformity on are the resurrection of hope. Amen.

Alexis M. Smith lives in Portland, Oregon with one jessica and two cats. She loves sleep, British crime dramas, and thrift stores. She thinks Kelly Link's stories would make great movies, and she can't believe Sarah Shun-lien Bynum didn't win the National Book Award. If you disagree, she'll probably feed you something delicious to change your mind.

Aimee Bender's story, "The Neighborhood," appears in Tarpaulin Sky V1n2. She is the author of Willful Creatures, The Girl In The Flammable Skirt, and An Invisible Sign of My Own.