By Aimee Bender
Doubleday. 208 pp. $22.95
Think of a width of exquisite lace, fashioned by a master artisan who has thrown away any idea of a previous pattern. Then think of the thread that makes up that lace as being incredibly dense and sturdy and strong. That's what the stories in this collection resemble. It may be too much to call them entirely original: What, after all, is really new under the sun? But insofar as short narratives can be new, exciting, harsh, rugged and unyielding, these are. Every sentence in them is a fresh surprise.
"Willful Creatures" is divided into three parts, all concerned with the same things: wickedness, perversity, a sense of terrible loss coupled with blinding love. And in many of them, human beings come in different shapes and sizes, which doesn't affect in any way their vulnerability and longing.
In "End of the Line," for instance, a man visits a "pet store to buy himself a little man to keep him company." The little man comes in a cage equipped with a couch and a TV, and at first the man and his teeny friend get along fairly well. But soon enough the big man gets bored and begins torturing his new possession. The little man has a wife and kids at home, but that cuts no ice with his owner. The big man wraps the little man in tape. He puts him in the refrigerator, then the toaster oven. He loves to toss the little man in the air and sneak household cleansers into his feeding tube because . . . because he does, that's all -- that's the big man's nature. When we have power over another person, we need to exert that power. It's human nature, this sad, witty story suggests.
In "Off," a woman exerts another kind of power -- the sexual kind: "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." This is perhaps not altogether out of the ordinary in real life, but this woman is dizzy from rage, hatred, jealously, alienation. She hates the party and all the people in it. She hates the guacamole and the brie as well as the art prints on the wall; crime is on her mind. She does the best she can to destroy the entire group, the guests as well as herself, but as with the big man who tortures the little man, her only reward is terrible loss and loneliness. Human beings are rent by insatiable desires to own and to control.
In "The Meeting," a bossy man desperately used to having his own way meets a woman who doesn't come up to his very high standards. He is disappointed, of course. "When he met her he could hardly stand her because she did not fit the shape in his brain of the woman he had planned so vigorously and extensively to meet." He doesn't hesitate to make her shortcomings more known to her, but she's not impressed. "He said, Go away, woman. You go away, she said, shooing him with her hand. You're the one following me around all the time." When she suggests that he calm down and chill out a little, he can only reply, "No . . . I control the world." Poor thing. If only! But we are made the way we are, forever saying and doing the thing that will drive others away.
In "Debbieland," a woman remembers how, when she was in school with a little band of vicious girls, they all picked on Debbie, who was guileless and helpless and didn't fit in. They taunted her and beat her up, and then went home to something just as terrible: "We do not speak to our mothers. Long ago we gave up on our mothers. All of us, even though some of us don't have mothers at all. Our mothers died, or our mothers left. Our mothers changed form into a toad." The "we" who tells this story turns out to be one forlorn and lonely middle-aged woman.
We only have one choice in life, the author seems to be saying: To extend love or withhold it. If we love, we suffer terribly from its inevitable loss. If we don't love, our suffering is inevitably worse. In "I Will Pick Out Your Ribs (From My Teeth)," a young man finds himself repeatedly taking his girlfriend to the emergency room; attempting suicide is her girlish, grisly hobby. He can only hide her pills in ever more unlikely places. If he were to throw them out, she'd leave him, he believes, and he couldn't stand that. He's utterly helpless. And in "Ironhead," a happily married pair of humans with pumpkin heads gives birth to a "special" son: Instead of a pumpkin, his head is a steam iron. The little boy has no eyes and breathes tiny jets of steam. His mother loves him beyond words, but the question is whether that love can save him.
In "Dearth," a woman who lives alone is visited by seven little potatoes who clearly want to be adopted. She doesn't like potatoes and throws them out. She already has a boyfriend and that's all the company she needs or wants. They come back the next day. She throws them out again. She leaves them in the road. Or the trash. Or even in the oven. She actually eats one, even though she doesn't like potatoes. It's a contest: They want her for a mom, but she doesn't want kids. The potatoes stand firm, but how much neglect and cruelty can a root vegetable take?
These stories might all too easily be labeled "quirky" or "fey" but they're not. They're blisteringly honest, harsh and hard. It's probably true that every day big countries torture little countries because they can, human beings seduce other human beings for fun, and parents withhold love from their own kids -- again, because they can and because they like to. We're only human, after all. But what a price we pay for that condition.