Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409
Aimee Bender is a writer known for concocting unusual, often beyond-belief stories of men and women who suddenly discover themselves in the most extraordinary circumstances. The fifteen stories in Willful Creatures do not disappoint in their weirdness, their illogic, and their refusal to conform to our expectations.
Some stories are more grounded in what might be called the “real world” than are others. In “Off,” a woman attends a party with the explicit intent of kissing three different men. She is a powerful, wealthy young woman—one of Bender's very “willful creatures”—and she succeeds in bagging the first two men she selects; but when she misses the mark with her third target, she buries herself beneath a mountain of partygoers’ coats, a “bad” woman overwhelmed by desire.
In other stories, Bender describes a kind of middle ground, where characters move back and forth between the real and the not-so-real. In “The Case of the Salt and Pepper Shakers,” for example, an older married couple are found dead in their home, apparent homicide victims. The detective investigating the case finds fourteen salt and pepper shakers in the couple's house, as well as a live-in chef who tries to explain the ways in which the couple's relationship was weirdly defined and documented by these shakers. Bender twists the lives of these people, even implicating the detective in a world where human relationships warp and bend, where men and women possibly kill each other over things as meaningful as salt and pepper shakers.
And then there are those stories that seem more like fables, stories that move in an entirely fantastic realm despite their links to the real. The story, “Ironhead,” imagines a couple—two literal “pumpkinheads”—who have two “normal” pumpkinhead children but whose third child turns out to have an iron for a head. The story imagines the inner and outer lives of this boy, who struggles to find a place in whatever world will have him; though he finally discovers some solace in the local appliance store, the boy eventually succumbs to exhaustion. The mother grieves, but all seems well when her two daughters deliver children who are also pumpkinheads; in time, though, the quirky, recessive gene re-emerges when a granddaughter is born with a teapothead.
Bender writes in a simple and at times deceptively simplistic style. Her stories are accessible, at times humorous, always inventive. She makes readers reconsider what they might demand of a short story.