Denizens of a shadow society

Diana Wagman is the author of, most recently, the novel "Bump."

IN polite society we are taught not to stare. Not at the woman with one leg, or the boy drooling in the wheelchair or the man in urine-stained pants talking to himself on the corner.

In the latest incarnation of stories from Aimee Bender’s world, “Willful Creatures,” we cannot look away. We not only stare, we inhabit these misfits and outcasts. We are one of them.

It is not always a comfortable place to be. A businessman buys a tiny man for a pet, then takes him home and tortures him. A girl attempts suicide time after time and her boyfriend comes to know the emergency room nurses by name. A woman is saddled with seven baking potatoes that she can’t get rid of. They grow arms and legs, they become children. She tries to destroy them. Then she becomes desperate for them. They may be potatoes, but they are all she has.


This world is both fantastic and bleak. It is not a place of happy endings. Each story is infused with loneliness. Bombs. Disease. Wrong information. There are only missed connections. Even the boy with keys for fingers cannot unlock the secret to his father’s misery.

Lyrical and lovely, Bender’s prose is also matter-of-fact and direct. She can turn a phrase that takes your breath away. She is Ernest Hemingway, using one perfect word where most writers would use 12. Even better, she is Hemingway on an acid trip; her choices are twisted, both ethereal and surprisingly weighty.

“Their sex is like castles; it has moats and turrets.”

In the first story, “Death Watch,” a man with two weeks to live seeks and finds a woman to be at his deathbed. He is a typical Bender character; limited and afraid and cut wide open by his impending demise. But then he doesn’t die, “and soon the sex is not the same as before. No longer a castle, now just hut.”

It is an unusual metaphor, sex as buildings, but it is perfect. In story after story, her characters are searching for home wherever they can find it: in sex, in possessions, in friendship, in violence.

Surrealism is hard to sustain. Not every story is completely successful. The standard criticism of the experimental work of Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover and others, that style takes over story, is sometimes true here as well; there are moments where the bizarre takes precedence for its own sake. Two parents with pumpkin heads give birth to a child with a steam iron for his head. It is a wonderful image, but the reader is never unaware of Bender’s workings and manipulations. We never become those pumpkin-headed parents or, more important, the child who doesn’t fit in. In this story we remain voyeurs.

The same is true in “The Case of the Salt and Pepper Shakers.” The narrator’s voice is sad but distant. The image of salt and pepper shakers never goes beyond a husband as the pepper and a wife as the salt. There is much here to be mined, but Bender skitters across the surface.

Bender, in her uncanny, light, clear way, digs deeply. “Debbieland” is an amazing story of the lifelong consequences of high school brutality, not on the victim but on the perpetrator. It is the girl who carried out the attack we feel for and who we understand will never get over it. In “End of the Line,” the story of the big man and his tiny human pet, the big man is an ogre, but it is the ogre who gets our sympathy in the end. Bender is a genius at turning our common emotions on their heads.

There is one oddly hopeful tale. “Job’s Jobs” seems horrific on the outside. God takes away literally everything from this man, ultimately including the man’s sight, voice, sense of touch. He is in a box with no windows or doors and still he survives.

“He thought of his wife making bridges of air over air. He listened to the sound of wind outside the box, loud and steady as his breath.”

No matter what God deals out, the man’s spirit continues, his mind never stops.

So many of us in our polite society cover our eyes and silence our mouths. We need Aimee Bender to continue to be the voice for our passionate, incomparable and terrifyingly lovely dreams. *