Franz Kafka began "The Metamorphosis" in unforgettable fashion: "When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect." Yet, I'm sure Kafka didn't image his powder keg opening line would be mimicked by so many. Aimee Bender is one of the many.
I can say one thing for Ms. Bender's stories: she has the dry Kafka delivery down. Here are opening lines from Bender's first collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (Doubleday, 2000): "Steven returned from the war without lips;" "My lover is experiencing reverse evolution;" "There were two mutant girls in the town: one had a hand made of fire and the other had a hand made of ice." As opening lines these are certainly worthy of an exclamation point or two—like a neon orange miniskirt they catch the reader's attention. Ms. Bender's stories wring your hand and rub against you, whispering, "We're little twisted fairy tales. You will be disturbed."
Yet, in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Bender's stories themselves betray a hollowness at odds with the supposed universal appeal of fairy tales. In Bender's fiction the characters are two-dimensional in the manner of most fairy tales, yet unlike the work of the best of Kafka's heirs, Haruki Murakami, Bender's work doesn't often have as much to say above and beyond a quirkiness in style. For instance, in "Drunken Mimi," another story from her previous collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, a mermaid discovers an imp who wears stilts to high school. One could say the story shows how the teenage years create a self-consciousness that is betrayed by freaks of nature, but so do trite sitcoms and animated Disney movies. In her previous collection I'm more inclined to think that Ms. Bender is swimming in waters too deep for her props. "Drunken Mimi" rides the coat tails of Grimm, unapologetically reducing the fairy tale to an extended Saturday Night Live sketch.
[Bender's stories] are as ephemeral as the daily cartoon, or box score, or horoscope: they offer a bit of distraction in a world filled with intrigue and complexity. Instead of opening up ambiguity, Bender's surrealism has a way of flattening complication to a single joke-like set-up/punch-line structure.
I'd love to announce here and now that Aimee Bender's recently published Willful Creatures
(Doubleday, 2005) reveals an advancement of technique on the part of the author, yet this is hardly the case. Yes, in some ways the stories within Bender's new collection are more thematically more mature—frequently revolving around parenthood and childbirth—but the writing itself is unfortunately still limited by Bender's general avoidance of psychological insight.
This isn't to say that some of the stories within the collection aren't effective. Some are. However, Bender's fiction is usually effective in the same manner as a skit is effective: it works if the conceit is interesting and carried through to its own logical (or in her case, illogical) conclusion. Otherwise…no dice.
In Willful Creatures Aimee Bender offers the reader her usual sampling of the peculiar. The collection features, among others, stories about a man who buys a little caged human as a pet; a woman who goes to a party with the idea of kissing three men; a boy who is born with a head made of an iron to pumpkin head parents; a boy who is born with keys for fingers; a husband and wife who hoard salt and pepper shakers to tragic effect. As concepts these stories work—and, in some cases, even as stories. However, these are the cream of the collection's crop. Stories such as "Job's Jobs," "Dearth," "The Leading Man," "Jinx," "Debbieland," "The Meeting," "Motherfucker" (about a man who only has sex with mothers), and "Death Watch" are as ephemeral as the daily cartoon, or box score, or horoscope: they offer a bit of distraction in a world filled with intrigue and complexity. Instead of opening up ambiguity, Bender's surrealism has a way of flattening complication to a single joke-like set-up/punch-line structure.
Aimee Bender's best stories in Willful Creatures don't try so hard to impress. Rather than attempting to seduce the reader with site-gags (pumpkin heads, hands made of keys), or easy irony (motherfuckers), or uber-hipness (most of the high school stories), like most good fiction, they just tell a story about a compelling character in some kind of jeopardy. In other words, Bender's fiction is most effectual (not to mention poignant) when—like George Costanza in the "Even Steven" episode of Seinfeld—it goes consciously against its own instincts. "Fruit and Words" and "I Will Pick Out your Ribs (from My Teeth)" are, for instance, haunting and psychologically intense stories that—unlike some of the stories listed above—one cannot easily summarize in one sentence. In "Fruit and Words" the unnamed narrator finds herself moored in Vegas when her boyfriend ditches her at a casino chapel: "Anticipating the talks we were going to have, to get to the point where we both admitted we were only in it out of loyalty and fear, my mouth dried up and I had a sudden and very intense craving for a mango." Yet the narrator's search for a mango pivots into unexpected terrain. Ironically, unlike stories about freakish babies with household appliances for heads, "Fruit and Words" is shocking—to the narrator, and to us.
Aimee Bender's fiction simply points to the difficulty of pulling off a sleight of hand in an age in which the reader has seen it all before ... On another level, I suppose Bender's work could seem like a sad commentary on the state of contemporary fiction.
ran an interview with Aimee Bender in 2000 in which she proclaimed her affinity for free-association and jazz-like improvisation. In stories like "Fruit and Words," her methodology pays dividends. Ultimately the narrator locates a store which not only sells fruit, but also words made of solids, gasses, and liquids. It is a transfixing story—especially given the level of the narrator's emotional wreckage (here handled with understatement)—yet noticeably Aimee Bender doesn't need the pyrotechnics of magical realism to pull it off. On the other hand "I will Pick Out Your Ribs (from My Teeth)" explores the relationship between an enabler boyfriend and his suicidal, pill-popping girlfriend. In this story the author actually does not include a single detail that wouldn't appear ordinarily in the world in which we all live in and know, and yet the story pulses with far more anguish and shock than some of the more eager-to-please stories.
Aimee Bender has stated that she intended Willful Creatures to essentially focus on meanness. However, aside from the limitations of Bender's character development, the collection is also marred by Bender's language experiments (if there is one noticeable change in Bender's approach to fiction, it is her new-found penchant for Gertrude Stein-like paragraphs). Here is the opening of "The Meeting": "The woman 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. No, this was a different woman, the one he met." I'm thrilled to see Bender attempting a bolder, original style. However, the author's experiments seem more tentative than intrepid, as if she is unsure herself of the role that language should play in her own work. Bender constructs most of the stories in the collection with waifish paragraphs, using dry, almost journalistic syntax.
In 2005 Boulevard ran a symposium where literary pundits weighed in on the question of who among past or present writers is overrated or underrated. I'd like to make an addition to the list in Aimee Bender. This is not to say that American authors cannot and should not write within the framework of a kind of magical realism. This is not to say that Aimee Bender isn't a talented author deserving of an audience. Aimee Bender's fiction simply points to the difficulty of pulling off a sleight of hand in an age in which the reader has seen it all before.
On another level, I suppose Bender's work could seem like a sad commentary on the state of contemporary fiction. Unlike the writers Bender co-opts (Cortazar and Borges and Marquez and Kafka and Murakami)—she fails to offer the reader a unique vision of the world. Yet the most unflattering aspect of the popularity of Bender's work is that it bespeaks of a shying away in the publishing and readerly world from ambiguity and from the depths of character. This is nothing less than a reflection of Hollywood. In the end it is almost as if Bender's fiction sidles up to the kind of concept-driven work found in science fiction or horror or fantasy magazines—she writes "What If" stories. Unfortunately, "What If" stories leave little room for the reader's imagination: the air is too thin up there.