Illustration by Ronald Kurniawan

A long time ago, when I was in college, I asked a friend — not an especially
close one, mind you — if he thought I was weird. My voice doubtless betrayed both
anxiety and eagerness. He paused, then replied rather wearily, “So maybe you’re
a bit weird. That’s not why I like you.”

Aimee Bender is, in many respects, a wonderful writer, but perhaps she needs such a friend. Her new collection, Willful Creatures, bears all the hallmarks of her uniquely idiosyncratic imagination — the pages sprout everything from a miniature man kept as a pet to a family of (actual) pumpkinheads who give birth to a boy with the head of an iron. At their strongest, these quirky pieces carry a near-allegorical force, and her observations are unfailingly piercing. But sometimes it feels as though she is striving for effect, as though Bender’s delightful and quixotic mind has alighted upon a flickering idea, or an image, and insisted, rather too forcefully, upon its story-ness.

The first story in the collection is one such: “Death Watch” opens with the announcement that “Ten men go to ten doctors. All the doctors tell all the men that they only have two weeks left to live.” It transpires that some diagnoses have been given in error, and Bender lists the fates of all the men. One heads to Greece and takes a lover, living with an intensity predicated upon his imminent death. But he doesn’t die, and doesn’t die — “He feels curiously fine” — and eventually returns to Denver. He calls his doctor to find out what has happened, but discovers that his doctor has died. When his Greek lover appears on the doorstep, Bender introduces the apocalypse: “He is brimming with abundance but it’s too late for all of them. When the bomb hits, the doctors shake their heads at each other as their bodies disintegrate.” Having written a story about finitude’s impact on life’s intensity, Bender apparently wants to gesture toward the irony of a death — a generalized death — following upon an unexpected reprieve. The result, half parable, half bad joke, is less rather than more affecting.

“Dearth,” on the other hand, feels labored not in its conclusion but in its development: It tells the story of a lonely woman who wakes up one morning to find a “cast-iron pot full of potatoes” in her house. They keep returning, for all she tries to dispose of them — including an effort to mail them to Ireland, “where potatoes belonged” — and over the course of nine months, they grow into mute, grubby potato children, whom she initially attempts to disown, but finally claims as her family. The story’s ending, in which her dead mother is returned to her through the smell of her wet children, is quite beautiful, but there remains a sense that we’ve been tricked into our response. Bender’s debt to Kafka is clear, but she has, too, an unsettling contemporary glibness. Just like some of her characters, she isn’t always frank about what’s at stake: As a result, her fiction dances, sometimes awkwardly, between a knowing cynicism and a pull toward genuine emotion.

That said, the movement can be glorious. Bender’s 2000 novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, navigates beautifully between mundanity and idiosyncrasy, between life’s rich strangeness and its searing hidden pain. The account of a 19-year-old elementary school math teacher with an arsenal of obsessive defenses, it renders the familiar strange, and the strange familiar, with great aplomb. In her protagonist, Mona Gray, we see someone whose affectlessness shields both need and immense hope, a person seeking to keep control in the roiling sea both of life’s tragedies and of its bewildering failure to rise to tragedy. Deceptively simple, the novel actually provides an eloquent articulation of the complexity of contemporary life. It is an accomplishment.

Among the stories in Willful Creatures, there are several that attain,
with near-aphoristic concision, great effect. “Motherfucker” tells of a nameless
man whose mode is, literally, to fuck mothers: “he didn’t fuck married mothers,
only available ones who wanted to date and who’d lined up an appropriate babysitter
for the child that’d made them a mother in the first place.” Having landed, from
the Midwest, in Bel Air, he sets his sights on a starlet, and seduces her with
impressive strategy and finesse. He manages to sidestep her complicated barriers
and superficialities, telling her, wonderfully, that “Desire is a house. Desire
needs a closed space. Desire runs out of doors or windows, or slats or pinpricks,
it can’t fit under the sky, too large. Close the doors. Close the windows . .
. It’s not supposed to be big at all. It should be the closest it can to being
your actual size.” Inevitably, this pure and ruthless intimacy proves unsustainable,
even fleeting, and Bender amply conveys both its poignancy and its banality. Her
dance, here, is as deft as her characters’.

In “The Meeting,” or in “Jinx,” she bares, in simple, near-fabular form, the ways people unexpectedly come together or come apart, the unnoticed moments in which the trajectories of their relationships are forever changed. In “The Meeting,” a man falls for a woman who bears no relation to his fantasy. By the story’s end, “He moved his fingers down her whole spine, one by one, and during the time it took to do that, his brain remained absolutely quiet. It is these empty spaces you have to watch out for, as they flood up with feeling before you even realize what’s happened; before you find yourself at the base of her spine, different.”

“Debbieland,” told in the first person plural, is a version of Heathers or Mean Girls — the high school recollection by a faceless young woman of tormenting, with her cool friends, a loser named Debbie. But Bender finds a way to portray the narrator’s own damage — for one thing, she continues to refer to herself as “we,” even when she’s alone. With a numbed amusement, she recounts her lesbian love affair and her chance meeting, many years later, with Debbie (who, it transpires, is actually named Anne), but Bender succeeds in imbuing that very chill with its full measure of unacknowledgeable pain.

In some sense, perhaps, Bender is more philosopher than storyteller. Almost all the stories collected here contain at least a sentence of impressive honesty and accuracy, a moment in which a reader will shiver with recognition at the unbearable­ness of both reality and its veils. This in itself bespeaks real talent. It is not that the miniature pet men, the ironheads or the boys with keys for fingers perforce obfuscate such revelations, but they can seem like so much flimflam, elaborate and diverting veils themselves.

Bender’s keen eye delights most when at its simplest. For example, in “I Will Pick Out Your Ribs From My Teeth,” the narrator, whose girlfriend is forever attempting suicide, visits a friend and is given food and a glass of milk. The friend “takes a sip of my milk; it’s a big sip, and it sort of makes me twitch because I was saving it for last. Even though it is rightfully his. Still. I like milk.” Ultimately, it’s for such details, rather than for Bender’s relentlessly inventive oddity, that we like her.

WILLFUL CREATURES | By AIMEE BENDER | 208 pages | Doubleday | $23 hardcover

Claire Messud’s most recent book is The Hunters.

Aimee Bender will read and sign Willful Creatures at 7 p.m. on Tuesday,
August 16, at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 659-3110; and
at 7 p.m. on Friday, August 19, at Vroman’s, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena,
(626) 449-5320. See future listings for Bender’s September readings.

LA Weekly