Aimee Bender’s second collection of short stories has been reissued to give readers drawn to her inimitable style by the debut novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, the opportunity to see where her real gift lies. Willful Creatures contains 15 stories that are by turns mesmerising, fantastical, peculiar, sometimes infuriating, but at all times different, unusual, offbeat and quietly pleasing.
Opening with ‘Death Watch’, a story that feels like a nod towards or an echo from Donald Antrim’s superior The Hundred Brothers, arguably the weakest story in the collection, Bender takes a short while to reach her stride. At times, particularly early in the book, some of her sentence structure has a way of distancing you from the tale. The various persona she adopts like to converse in sentences that sometimes run on, requiring digressive asides, that are pertinent, but pertinence notwithstanding, can leave the reader, which would be you or me, feeling like a point needs to be reached before, you know, the end of the week. Whether Bender settles or whether the reader acclimatises, this feeling passes – and Bender’s charm starts to exert itself.
‘End of the Line’ concerns a difficult, bullying man who purchases a tiny man as a pet. ‘Fruit & Words’ tells the story of a woman driving home from a break-up in Vegas who chances across a fruit store that has a sideline in eccentric art. Over in ‘Ironhead’, a pumpkin-headed couple give birth to a child whose head is, as the title suggests, shaped like an iron. ‘Dearth’, quite possibly my favourite story, unfolds like something from Angela Carter: a mysterious pan filled with potatoes appears in our narrator’s kitchen each day, irrespective of how, Groundhog Day-like, she dispatches them the previous day – and the potatoes start to grow, becoming potato children. There are creative conversations between writers and God, odd detective stories, and magical realism (best seen in ‘The Leading Man’, a story that concerns a boy born with keys instead of fingers).
But Bender is not just a female Neil Gaiman. She has the sass of Tina Fey (see ‘Jinx’), the power to conjure the sweet ennui of a low budget indie movie (‘I will pick out your ribs (from my teeth)’) and a fine line in the kind of cosmopolitan skewering you’d expect from Bret Easton Ellis (see both ‘Off’ and ‘Motherfucker’). You get to the end of Willfull Creatures and you realise that you have adjusted your view of Bender maybe a half a dozen times over the course of the book. Here is a writer with no small ability, you think. Here is a writer who appears to have jumped on to the list of writers whose books we’ll be checking out from here on in.
Any Cop?: Short story fans take note: here is a book that you’ll want to check out as a matter of urgency because – and this is key – this is how it’s done.