Aimee Bender writes modern-day fairy tales for an adult audience. That may not be what she sets out to do, but that’s how her best short stories read to me. Her latest volume, Willful Creatures, came out Tuesday. (I got an advance copy and read it while I was down the beach.) And it is just as good as her debut, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, if perhaps a bit darker. I love how she tells stripped down tales with only the barest of premises. You usually get the premise right from the first sentence, and these often include worlds like our own except for one magical or surreal element: a boy is born with keys for nine of his ten fingers (“The Leading Man”), a couple of pumpkin-head people decide to get married and have babies (“Ironhead”), a man buys from the pet store a little man to keep in a cage (“End of the Line”), a mysterious roadside store sells fruit and words -- not in the poetry or prose sense, but real, live physical words as if from a twisted Sesame Street (“Fruit and Words”). Even when there aren’t any outwardly surreal motifs, there is an off-kilter quality to her narratives. At times, her stories are a little creepy or obscene in a uniquely deadpan way (“Motherf***er”). But Bender can usually turn that initial feeling of revulsion into one of thoughtfulness or tenderness by the end.
The stories exist in a world in which both reader and characters don’t fully comprehend what’s going on, but must – as readers almost always do – take what knowledge and information is granted to them – on the page or in life – and make with it what they will. Even when God himself – or at least the inexplicably cruel God of the Book of Job – enters the scene to restrict the creative impulses of a hopeful man, one by one, there is no further explanation (“Job’s Jobs”). And so it is that I read the stories as a child might read tales of the brothers Grimm. Except that now we're grown up and realize that life doesn’t always make sense but that it can nonetheless offer much beauty and fascination in its ups and downs. In one of my favorites of the bunch, the boy with key-fingers grows up himself and gradually discovers the disparate locks that his hands fit into. And when he finds and unlocks the ninth lock, a feeling of sadness – romantic melancholy, perhaps – overcomes him, because all the mysteries of his fingertips are suddenly solved, and a part of his life dies away. (This story reminded me of JSF's Extremely Loud, as if it were written better, much briefer, and less pretentious.)
After reading this book, I’d like to set it aside and go back to her first volume and read those stories over again. And then later on, return to this new one and read them a second time as well. The stories are brief by most standards, but they cried out to be read with spaces between them, not all at once. I’d read one, finish it, and then close the book, and wait for a while before opening it again to read the next one. And I didn’t have to use a bookmark because I just remembered which story was the last one and which was my next.