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The Man in the Gilded Cage: Aimee Bender's stories bubble up from unique perspectives.

Logic of the Bizarre

Aimee Bender's stories in 'Willful Creatures' take logical detours through bizarre landscapes

By Rick Kleffel

Rarely do readers get to explore the uncharted realms of the unconscious with mathematical precision. But Aimee Bender's Willful Creatures offers a selection of short stories that bubble up from an imagination that values clarity as much as color. Bender will start from a bizarre, dreamlike premise, but her exploration is a model of logic. Her love of language is apparent in every word, every phrase, every choice she makes. Each story in Willful Creatures adds up to a unique sum, a complex mood that can be expressed only with the words she has so carefully chosen. Whether she's addressing the longing of a lonely man in "End of the Line" or the cruelty of teenage girls in "Debbieland," Bender seems to paint a precise picture of the ineffable. "End of the Line," in which a man goes "to the pet store to buy himself a little man to keep him company," is alternately creepy, poignant and funny.

"It bothered me when I was writing that story," says Bender. "I would write it in these little bits ... and I felt like maybe nobody will ever read this because it's really disturbing me." While the story does disturb, Bender's concise language evokes more than distress. The reader also glimpses loving, a longing for companionship and a desire to yield as well as dominate. Once Bender has decided that there are little men you can buy as pets, everything that follows is inescapable.

Many of the works here have the timeless feel of fairy tales and fables, written with a light, modern touch. "I read fairy tales voraciously as a kid, and I read them over and over," she says. "I really felt that that was a childish love of mine that I would have to abandon. ... It was an amazing and fulfilling shift when the stuff that I was writing that was better was more fairy-tale-like, telling the story in a fablelike form, and that felt like an incredible permission pass for me."

Readers will share her joy, with stories like "The Leading Man," about a boy born with keys instead of fingers who becomes a hero, or "Dearth," in which a woman finds a pot full of potatoes that grow to become her surrogate children. Bender's precise language makes the fantastic feel utterly real, and she evokes a complex mixture of joy, sorrow and laughter. Bender writes the best kind of fairy tales and fables, easily read nuggets with a surreal surface and a universal appeal.

Does Aimee Bender dream in color? "I think so. I dream outlandish dreams, but I forget most of them. ... Each of us has this whole roiling unconscious and it's such a creative resource. I really feel like my job as a writer is to get out of the way as much as I can and let what's going to tumble out tumble out onto the page."

Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender; Doubleday; 224 pages; $22.95 cloth

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From the August 24-31, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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