Sunday, September 21, 2008

Willful Creatures

Willful Creatures is a book of short stories by Aimee Bender. I'm a big fan of Bender's Invisible Sign of My Own, which is probably up there in my top 10 books. As I recall, I read most of her previous book of short stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, which I didn't enjoy and have largely forgotten.

I read Willful Creatures for my book club, which continues to delight. I was curious about how convivial a book of short stories would be to our conversation, but, just like every book we've read, it was great. I lately find that a spirited conversation about books with friends is one of the finest conversations a person can have. Especially if it's coupled with lots and lots of wine.

Bender's writing style is often categorized as "magical realism" or "surreal". I'm a bit hesitant to put any label on it, but her work certainly, at times, reminds one of say, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Willful Creatures had several stories that just completely slayed me - particularly the one referred to on the cover, called "End of the Line" in which a man purchases as a pet a "little man", which he treats disrespectfully and abuses. I think there's an impulse to read her stories (especially those about children who are actually potatoes or have irons for a head, or keys for fingers) as symbols or replacements for some other thing or idea, but generally that line of thought doesn't hold true. For example, you can read "End of the Line" as an allegory for the ethical treatment of animals, because the man does threat his little man as carelessly as, sadly, too many people treat their pets, but it's not that simple. What Bender does is really create a world in which there are little men, little people, rather, and then explores how we live together.

Another stand-out was "Debbieland", written in the first person plural, which always give me a bit of a thrill. It's another painful story, about the cruelty of girls, and like the story of the little man, was deeply touching.

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