I was introduced to Aimee Bender’s writing by my dear friend Jenny, a Los Angeles native who has known the author as a family friend for many years. It was a September evening, still warm and bright outside at dinner time, and Jenny and I met in front of the Astor Place Barnes and Noble. We had planned on having iced teas before the reading and, as we rode the escalator to an upstairs café, Jenny leaned close to me and said, “She’s kind of kooky,” referring to Bender. “Her writing – it’s kind of kooky.”
An hour later I am squeezed into a room slightly wider than a corridor with more bodies than chair legs. Aimee Bender is standing at the podium at the head of the room. This woman with tousled brown hair and red everything else (dress, shoes, necklace, lipstick) is about to change my literary world.
She reads a story titled “Off” from Willful Creatures, her new collection of short stories.
"I had a dog once, a big dog, a Great Dane, and I named him Off so when I called him, I said 'Off!' and he came bounding over. It really fucked with people’s heads. At the dog park no one got it. They kept trying to figure out how I did that, if I was okay, what was happening."
In the story, an independently wealthy young woman goes to a party that her mild-mannered and far less glamorous best friend, with whom she has had an ambiguous flirtation since junior high, is hosting. She decides to entertain herself by making a game of the men at the party. “...I make a goal and it is to kiss three men: one with black hair, one with red hair, the third blond.” The woman has a steely attitude, but is coldest on the inside. She is lonely, but incapable of opening herself to true companionship, and bored, but too rich to work. She targets her recent ex (blond hair), and manages to guide him into the bathroom. He kisses her, as requested. Before he leaves her, however, he gets her to think about the kind of woman that she is, which makes the game seem much less fun. She stands there in the bathroom trying to convince herself that she is a “not-cold woman” and then, mechanically, pursues her next victim.
Willful Creatures reads like a collection of case studies in emotional starvation and the various forms of violence. The nameless characters therein lend a sense of allegory to the fifteen stories. “Motherfucker” is a story based on a bad joke. Bender teaches us, however, that if you live on a diet of these, you will either starve or poison yourself. The main character goes after women with children, beds them, and disappears. His women are hurt by this. It is revealed, however, that, in an attempt to remain internally hollow, he is doing the most damage to himself.
“I Will Pick Out Your Ribs (from My Teeth)” is about a man whose girlfriend keeps trying to kill herself. “Ironhead” is about a family of people with pumpkins for heads who give birth to a son whose shoulders support and iron instead. He feels very alone and becomes incapable of sleeping. Instead, he spends his nights “...wide awake, smoothing his pillowcase with his jaw.” As he becomes sadder by the day, his health begins to fail and his parents are at a loss. How can they fix their baby’s head?
In “Debbie Land” an unsympathetic bully muses on Debbie, a star victim in grade school. In “End of the Line” a man of normal scale buys a miniature man and after approximately two weeks of harmonious life together, the owner-pet relationship turns sour. The bigger man begins to torture the little one. “End of the Line” introduces the idea of dimensional violence. This is a theme throughout the collection: violence being done in terms of scale, shape (as in “Ironhead”), and matter. In “Fruit and Words,” a woman stops at a roadside produce stand to satisfy a craving for mangos and finds that the proprietor of the business has a number of sinister side projects which are on display in back rooms. The fruitier has been creating words out of their literal substance — the word “nut” created out of nuts, “hair” from strawberry blonde tendrils, and a rather expensive “pearl.” But she has also been training liquids and gasses to hold the shape of the words that describe them, “poison”, “blood”, and “smoke'” for examples.
Bender’s writing is full of explosive details on par with those of Lorrie Moore: “‘Goodbye’ we said to each other, and the kiss was an old dead sock.” Willful Creatures is conceived of an imagination paralleled only by that of Katherine Dunn. Her characters and settings are so visceral and real that even the most heartbreaking moments are funny. Bender is a magician. When she knows she has her reader riveted, she will inconspicuously plant the seeds of ideas, start revving up for a twist, or drop a key word that, later, she will make good on in a completely unexpected way.
To read Aimee Bender’s writing, you must be willing to suspend your belief. But do so, and she will transport you to some amazing (and perhaps terrifying) worlds. Her tales can be sickening and unnerving as, while employing some rather unhuman characters, they delve into serious questions about the human condition. But, at every moment, the writing is beautiful.