If stepping into an Aimee Bender story is like entering a dream, then reading a book of her short stories is the equivalent of slipping into an alternate universe. Bender’s stories are brief and airy, but by no means do you feel bloated and unsatisfied after their consumption. Quite the opposite. Her surreal, wending narratives featuring misshaped people and unlikely circumstances — a boy with keys for fingers, a pumpkinhead family with their unusual iron-headed son, a man with a miniature-human pet he keeps in a cage — are unspeakably human, new parables for modern life.
Bender’s new book of short stories, Willful Creatures, is a natural extension of her first, highly praised, Girl in a Flammable Skirt. There’s lightness without whimsy, it’s make-believe but the truths are real to the core. Such as in “I Will Pick Out Your Ribs (From My Teeth)”, a man desperately tries to save his girlfriend from her hell-bent self-destruction — they’re consumed by a cycle where he hides her pill stash after each of her overdoses, but it’s only a matter of time until she finds the hiding place and ends up again in the emergency room. Paradoxically, the backdrop of fantasy eliminates a wall of dissociation that’s built when we picture the troubled lives of others, and instead a nugget of truth burrows in. The sadness, desperation, and futility of the situation are crushing, the man’s optimism pitiable, yet the couple represents every couple that skirts looking the demise of the relationship in its face, if only to linger in the comfort of love and predictability a little while longer.
The stories that hover closer to reality fixate wonderfully on the dynamics of female relationships and the sometimes absurdity, cattiness, and masochism that accompany them. In a nutshell, “Jinx” captures the interdependency of teenage-girl friendships, and the weirdness of developing an adult body. Each girl has a good butt, but each wishes she had a different one, “one had breasts, the other was waiting”. The two have similar tastes and go everywhere together; but no matter how much they try to be the same, they are different. At the point where the girls are separated, when one goes to smoke with the record-store clerk on his break and leaves the other flipping through the poster rack, they are given names, as if before then the two were one. The newly named Cathy, the poster-flipper, looks for her friend and unable to find her, leaves feeling bare and alone: “This is so rare. This moment is rare. This teenage girl out on the shopping street alone: rare.”
“Debbieland”, too, hits on the adolescent need to belong, but with a twist. Debbie, the class outcast who desperately wants to fit in and who follows the trends, though always a few months too late, is despised even more because she does it just to gain approval. “Debbie wore the skirt because she’d seen enough people wear it to know it was okay. She wore the scary skirt safely. For that, we despise Debbie.” But as much as Debbie desperately wants to belong, the narrator needs to just as much (she always speaks as “we”) and depends on insulting Debbie to armor her self-assurance of being stronger, righter, better.
Bender is at her best when she steps into the surreal, where she laves us in metaphor, drawing us into a universe delineated by her words. “Fruit and Words” engages in fierce wordplay that begins when the narrator enters a roadside shop that sells fruit and words made from the substance each represents. The first section of the store sells words in solids, the second, in liquids, and in the back, gases, one of which the narrator unknowingly breaks and refuses to pay for. While on the page the words, of course, are merely words, in the story they are both symbol and substance, drawing attention to the multiple lives of the word on the page. Blood is the word that’s read, the word that the shopkeeper hurls at the car, but at the same time it is blood, which splatters on the car.
Like the gaseous words, Bender’s stories are difficult to place in this world. They are fantasies grounded in just enough reality that they speak to you, and likewise, others mimic reality with a touch of fantasy, in a way that makes you see the world differently. And while the stories often focus on the lives of women — loves lost and gained, broken relationships, adolescence, and the nature of desire — there’s no mistaking them for chick-lit. They’re mature, refined, and pared-down, not dumbed-down, they traverse the feminine psyche with alacrity. And the magical realities they deliver are wrapped in fantastical casings.