The Risk Taker
Photo courtesy DoubledayWith Willful Creatures, her third book and second superb collection of short stories, Aimee Bender, the UCI MFA alumna and current Angeleno, comes off like one of the conceptual artists of the '70s, when painters came at the canvas idea first, and execution of color, line, the use of space, as elegant as it often was, was all follow-through and beholden to concept. The 15 stories of Willful Creatures, neatly parceled into three sections of five stories each (and each section weighing in at almost 70 pages, an arithmetical balance that I'm guessing pleases Bender in some way), begin like this: "Ten men go to doctors. All the doctors tell all the men that they only have two weeks left to live." Or this: "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 first story follows through precisely on the consequences of that first line. The second story's the same: it's about what happens when the woman tries to execute her plan with the three guys. The stories tend to have rigid organizing principles, like long jokes (or the dreams of very controlled people), and give the pleasures of structure (as opposed to the pleasures of, say, improvisation).
Another story, "Motherfucker," is about a literal mother fucker, a guy who only sleeps with divorced women with children, and the lonely consequences that ensue when he tries to execute that concept. (Has Bender heard Neil Young's song from Rust Never Sleeps whose chorus goes: "Welfare mothers make better lovers"?) Or "Job's Jobs," which begins, "God put a gun to the writer's head," and is about the Man Upstairs demanding that a writer entirely give up his imagination, and how well this postmodern Job takes to that idea. I'd call the stories "high concept," except that implies Hollywood commerciality, and though these stories are very Los Angeles—they're like the parables that might have come from Kafka (or sometimes Garca Mrquez or Borges) if he flew to Santa Monica and baked his brain in the beach's ozone—they're not Hollywood at all. They're entertaining and funny and weird, but they're idiosyncratic as hell: they're, well, Bender's as much as they are stories, original and probably inimitable, the way Richard Brautigan's stories were back in the day, and it's heartening to see that, having tasted some best-seller success with her first two books, she's been doggedly faithful to the fragile, unbearable lightness of her vision. The most willful creature in this book is Bender herself.
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The vision comes from her style as much as her concepts, though. It's a slippery style, sometimes demanding the license exerted by poets and mythmakers ("We follow the bait and the fish, hooked. We follow the fate and the wish. Cooked." Or: "The room overflowed with that sort of blessing. The combination of loss and abundance. The abundance that has no guilt. The loss that has no fix. The simple tiredness that is not weary. The hope not built on blindness"), sometimes exposing the comic inarticulateness of contemporary speech in a way that's ingenuous, ironizing and fond all at once (Two teenage smokers kissing: "Ponytail girl leaned over and she and the tall boy kissed and it was carcinogen gums and magical"). Combine the poetry and the stylized inarticulateness; combine her penchant for weighty structure with the fleet-footed innocence that gives her stories and characters a mysterious weightlessness that draws her away from realism and into the realm of myth—mix all that, and you're onto Bender's recipe for fiction.
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It's a wide-ranging cookbook, though this Willful Creatures; Bender can write a beautifully elliptical encomium to motherhood ("Hymn") as well as perform savage surgical strikes on the cruelties of teenage girls ("Debbieland") or single competitive women ("Off"). She can convince us of the transformative surprises of new love ("The Meeting") as well as she can of the ruts of love that kill it ("I Will Pick Out Your Ribs [From My Teeth]"). "Debbieland" is narrated by a "we"—the collective pronoun adopted by a group of high school girlfriends so insecure they can't stand to be separated—and chronicles how they torture a girl for fun and how, years later, high school long over and the "we" long dispersed, one of their band, still feeling pitifully superior in her head, encounters the girl they tortured and gets a comeuppance she's too far gone to even notice. (The story's both nasty and tender toward the pathetic creature telling the story.) "The Meeting" begins: "The women he met. He met a woman. This woman was the woman he met. She was not the woman he expected to meet or planned to meet or had carved into his head in full dress with a particular nose and eyes and lips and a very particular brain." (Note the poetic rhythms, as well as the stylized inarticulateness, incidentally.) And in its five pages it chronicles the way new love stuns long-bred expectations, can make the lover yield to its power, can change the lover in ways wondrous and permanent. "I Will Pick Out Your Ribs," narrated by a quintessential "enabler," a boyfriend who is too nice, too forgiving, too afraid to extricate his girlfriend from her cycles of attempted suicide and promises of "never again," is heartbreaking: Bender's touch is both tender and tough, the story riding a filament—a thin line between his anticipations of disaster and rueful hope for a miracle.
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Bender falters occasionally too. She constitutionally can't do realism (no loss there: there are plenty of others to take up the slack), and when she tries, with a story like "Fruit and Words," you miss the saving grace of her elliptical spirit, the blessings of linguistic surprise that lift her stuff into the realms of myth, folktale or surrealistic parable, where most of her work resides. And occasionally, one of her concepts, like the one in which a man buys a tiny man in a cage at a pet store, is too thin and runs out of steam before Bender can make anything resonant out of it. In such stories, you see the dangers of the conceptualist strategy: ideas that look promising at first sometimes come to nothing, and all the style in the world can't save them.
But even the few failures are instructive, demonstrating the risks Bender takes in this book. And Willful Creatures, for all its nonchalant loopiness, is risk-taking fiction. Like the Mr. Jones from her novel An Invisible Sign of My Own, Bender is the artist of the soap bubble, the careful renderer of the rainbow beauties and parabolic fragilities of a bubble launched into the air, ever mindful of the surface tensions required to keep it afloat and lovely, and of the changing atmospherics that will make it, inevitably and sadly, pop and disappear into ever-thinning air.
WILLFUL CREATURES BY AIMEE BENDER; DOUBLEDAY. HARDCOVER, 208 PAGES, $22.95.
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