February 07

A Will to Powerlessness: Aimee Bender's Willful Creatures

David Stromberg

Reviewed: Aimee Bender, Willful Creatures, Anchor, 2006

After encountering the variety of slightly more (or slightly less) fantastical characters appearing in Aimee Bender's Willful Creatures (Anchor, 2006), it is not enough for someone to say, "Yes, humans are very willful creatures." The reader repeatedly confronts a sort of "willful" persevering essence which both struggles against and actualizes itself within characters' experiences of circumstances unfitting, unexpected, unsuccessful, or irreconcilable.

Yet the will these literal and figurative "creatures" express never enables complete control or wields power over the characters possessing (or possessed by) it. It is a compulsive will, sometimes twisted or perverted: a will of its own. And whether they like it or not, these creatures are full of a force which can be described as an inner struggle between a necessary power and a desire for powerlessness. The creatures (that is, people, we) hover between the powers that they are given or assume in their relations with others, powers that they grant to others over themselves and their lives, and the powerlessness of an essential self that in some sense knows that these powers can be assumed, but would rather stay free of the complications, obligations, and difficulty or pain they entail.

Bender's writing in the past has often highlighted power-play within and between characters, though she has concentrated equally on emotions and other internal reactions. She not only caught the attention of critics with her first short story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (Anchor, 1999), but garnered a committed readership that followed her into her first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own (Anchor, 2001), and patiently awaited this new collection, pulled into her writing by the imagination and craft of her stories.

Myth and fairytales are important storytelling elements for Bender, and throughout Willful Creatures place – like people and creatures – receives varying treatments of specificity and ambiguity. In "End of the Line," the "small blue bus" at the conclusion of the story offers a humorous reference to Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus system. In "Debbieland," Bender mentions Wilshire Boulevard, then ominously and obliquely refers to the La Brea Tar Pits as "the tar." In "Fruit and Words," she writes for a page about Las Vegas, actually describing some of its specific environs and the experience of being there.

"Place is strange this way, for me," Bender says.

One of my best teachers, writer Judith Grossman, split writing into two fields: mythic and public. A mythic story would take place in a land, or a less-named place; a public story would be in a named place, at a certain time: New York City, 1972.

I was once in a workshop, long ago, and I'd named the places, just because I thought I had to, and a fellow student named Jillian told me I could just call the market a market instead of naming it. I was so relieved by this, because I liked the look of the word market and then it forced me to see it in my mind, whereas the naming had, for me, been a kind of placeholder, or a shortcut.

Lately I've been liking naming places, but I think the name has to hold weight, can't just be a placeholder like I was doing before, for it to work. Otherwise it can feel thin on the page. I'd rather be honest with the word 'market' and sit with what I picture than just stuff in 'Ralph's' as the market name, without actually thinking about Ralph's at all.

Throughout Willful Creatures, Bender explores relations between women and men, yet assigns no single character a final victory or defeat. Instead, she implicates everyone by her or his behavior, her or his desires for a reality utterly different from – if not unrelated to – the encountered one, and yet aware of the facts of the situation to which a character may eventually either become reconciled or reject.

In "Off," Bender presents a character that has made it a goal at a certain dinner party to kiss three men, each of a different hair color. The project is doomed from the outset, and the ensuing events manage only to embarrass the character and expose the limitedness of her eccentricity. In "The Meeting," Bender writes of a woman and a man who have taken a walk together: "The woman said goodbye and went to her cottage and made some spaghetti..." It is unlikely she did much else, because the same sentence ends with "...and the next day guess who was at her door." Between the man leaving and showing up again, there is nothing to know about this woman other than the fact that she prepared one of the most commonly eaten dishes in this world. With these sorts of details, both non-specific and concrete, a paradoxical core emerges from Bender's form, simultaneously non-committal and solid, as if the events and details she describes are marginal to the actual facts, somehow missing but still not too far away.

And yet these "marginal" details are essential in their status as stand-ins, so that while they may not be "actual," neither are they irrelevant. Bender matches up a subverting evasiveness – a leading away or skimming over a literal, factual, exhaustive description – with a directness of ideas and an honesty of emotion that lend both the fantasy and the reality their believability.

Asked about the question of reality and physicality in her work, Bender replies:

One of the reasons I write how I do is that I'm trying to capture a feeling, something that feels very real to me, and very intangible, and the only way I know how to do it is to tell a story in a particular way, and I've probably tried to tell it 100 times another way. Physicality is important, but what drops below the language is the most important to me; the words as a medium to convey a feeling that is underneath the words.

While there are moments in each story that point toward a marked development in style, theme, and tone, there are a few stories scattered throughout that, in their entirety, depart considerably from Bender's earlier work.

One such deviation is tucked into the latter middle of the book, "I Will Pick Out Your Ribs (from My Teeth)." It is the story of a girlfriend with a compulsion for overdosing on pills and a boyfriend that tolerates this pattern, continually putting off his "duty and make a scene and dump all the pills down the toilet like I'm supposed to," knowing that as soon as he does "Janie will cry and cry and find herself a new boyfriend."

With "End of the Line," the collection's second story, Bender carries the reader into an unexpectedly cruel scenario: A big man has bought a little man as a pet with whom he sees fit to do whatever strikes his fancy – from dousing him with alcohol, to stuffing him down his pants, to throwing him across the room. It seems possible that the "big man" might have been a reference to a ruling class which tortured and exploited the "little man," but Bender claims otherwise:

I was interested in exploring what would happen if a very lonely and not particularly reliable big man suddenly found himself in a position of absolute power. I wrote that story in bits, because it would unsettle me to write it, but it also felt important to let the big man mistreat the little man, because I thought he would. I actually think the little man, in terms of social class, is higher up than the big man, because he can speak a little Italian, is white collar, has traveled, and the big man is too scared to explore the world, is afraid of being humiliated. So the big man resents this in the little man, feels powerless, and starts to hurt him.

Bender also pays repeated attention to the theme of parenthood throughout her new collection, painting it as a distant, almost unfathomable phenomenon. In "Dearth," we are introduced to a batch of child-like entities – in this case, potatoes which later take on the shape of large beans and ultimately become humanoids – suddenly appearing in a woman's house and beginning to take form without ever being asked to do so. The woman makes several attempts to reject their unannounced arrival, but though she succeeds in temporarily putting them out of sight, she can never bring herself actually to eradicate them all. She tests the limits of their magic presence, becoming more violent and more extreme, but when she finally manages to make one of them permanently disappear, she experiences great shock, regret, and culpability. "Go back where you came from" the imposed-upon mother yells at her potato-children – for no other reason than her inability to stand their actual being; then she goes on to bury them all. Eventually, when she can no longer stand their absence, she unearths them, holds out her hands, and embraces them with unconditional yet incomprehensible love.

There is no overabundance of hope in Bender's new collection, though this is not to say that it is imbued with nihilism or despair either. Rather, the writing tries to put hope aside altogether, and to set whatever is left in its rightful place – to strip it of its idealizations and at the same time to endow it with the full strength of what it is. This process often includes separating the thing – or the person – from other things or persons to which they have attached themselves. In some cases this means disconnecting from ideas and beliefs that hold a character back from entering the reality that has presented itself; more often, it leads a character to become aware of the ties that bind these things and people to their own compromises and lies, but also to their living and expressive selves.

Bender is a thought-provoking writer, deceptively simple in both style and theme. Her subjects and characters participate in the contemporary world, yet they are several steps removed from it at the same time. A distinct trace of American culture – focused on self-determination, self-awareness, and interpersonal understanding – is foregrounded through contrary actions, thoughts, and associations, all becoming stark and distinct through Bender's pared down language.

Though Bender is preoccupied with myth and fairytale and making use of unexplainable events, she does not enter the realm of the mystical. In the worlds her characters inhabit, events can't afford explanations. Sometimes her magic is illustrative, sometimes symbolic, and often it obscures an object as much as it elicits it. One is reminded of Ray Bradbury, not just because he is a Los Angeles resident like Bender, but because both writers us metaphors in an accessible way, neither one trying to be overly oblique or complicated in devising or putting to use a metaphor – the meaning of which their readers can better approach in a direct, heartfelt way.

With Willful Creatures Bender has formulated a weighty version of the surrealist-metaphorical fantasies for which she is known, and also interjected a related realist realm, grounding her effort with a view that precludes vindication, over-righteousness, or the conquest of the idyll.



David Stromberg is Zeek's Book Reviews Editor and the author of three collections of single panel cartoons, Saddies, Confusies, and Desperaddies.