Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender, reading at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, Wed August 24, 7:30 pm
Aimee Bender's stories fall distinctly into one of two styles, each of which is on display in her new collection, Willful Creatures. She is best known for her oddball modern fairytales. Supernatural births abound: A pumpkinhead couple gives birth to a child with an iron for a head and babies grow from a pot of indestructible potatoes. They're the kind of stories Jeanette Winterson would write if she was more fun at parties.
The other story type offers a dark realism narrated by sarcastic, emotionally checked-out protagonists. In "Off" a woman arrives at a party having set a goal to make out with a blond, a red-haired, and a black-haired man, but instead winds up stealing the guests' coats and hiding in the closet. In another, a man drives his faux-suicidal girlfriend to the hospital for the umpteenth time. Glancing through the magazines in the waiting room he comments, "When I look at the crosswords, they're all filled in, and worse they're filled in by me."
While there is a joy and a willingness to marvel at the world in many of these stories, Bender seems more pessimistic about human nature than in her previous collection, Girl in the Flammable Skirt. In "The End of the Line" a normal-sized man purchases a tiny man as a pet and keeps him in a cage. After the initial novelty wears off the owner entertains himself by adding household cleanser to the tiny man's drinking water and forcing him to masturbate his miniature penis. To me the story works as parable of U.S. involvement abroad and this scene can't help but recall the saddest images of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. But one of Bender's strengths is that, like the myths they emulate, these stories are open to a wide array of interpretations and have something to offer people of any vantage point.
Willful Creatures is an impressive collection: funny, sexy, and entertaining, but also stylistically inventive. However, certain elements and tropes recur quite often from her previous work and one hopes she will explore new terrain in the future, lest her immense talent become regarded as predictable.