A review of

Willful Creatures

by Aimee Bender

Central question: Central question: Who pushes us to our limits?
Format: 224 pp., hardcover; Size: 8½" x 5½"; Price: $22.95; Publisher: Doubleday; Editor: William Thomas; Book designer: Terry Karydes; Typeface: Bodoni; Author’s parents: psychiatrist, and dance teacher/choreographer; Author had childhood fear of: thunder; Author’s favorite breakfast food: Dannon coffee yogurt; Author inspired by: Haruki Murakami, Anne Sexton, Grace Paley; Author received MFA from: UC Irvine; Representative sentence: “The skin broke quick, and the flesh, meaty and wet, slid inside my mouth, the nearly embarrassing free-for-all lusciousness of ripe fruit.”

Many of the willful creatures populating Aimee Bender’s radiant second short story collection seem the innocent, cloudy-headed dreams of a child. Potato-children dotingly follow mother as she completes her chores; a miniature man lounges on dollhouse furniture and keeps a pet ant in a cage; a family of pumpkinheads love their oddball ironhead son; and a boy with keys for fingers unlocks doors all over the world.

But it’s not safe and secure. Each story is laced with a bit of arsenic that curls the tongue and sharpens the breath. Narrative storms—loneliness, suspicion, torture, and death—sweep in and electrocute the landscape with jagged lightning. Always unexpected, the events befalling these characters aren’t the whims of a cruel author who enjoys inflicting pain. In fact, Bender feels less the creator of these stories and more a charming hostess who, despite some less than ideal circumstances, makes you comfortable with affable, screwy humor, parlor-room wordplay, and some plain old cute sentences like, “He felt very very tired for four years old.” Many writers try to stand back and let their characters direct the story, but in Willful Creatures, this idea is palpable in the narrative itself. In the best possible sense, Bender doesn’t seem in control.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

—Margaret Wappler

Margaret Wappler writes for Arthur, LA Weekly, and Nerve, among others. She lives in Los Angeles.


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