Escapism for Moms: Three Chronicles of Fatherhood

Since my daughter was born, almost a year ago, I’ve been wary of books about motherhood, whether fiction or non-fiction, tender tale or battle hymn. In the precious few hours I’ve had to read, I haven’t wanted to think about what kind of mother I am. It still feels strange -- both wonderfully strange and alarmingly strange -- to say that I have a child. I hardly ever refer to myself in the third person, as mom, mommy, or mama. My daughter knows who I am. She’ll put some sort of name to my face soon enough. I do, however, say “dad” all the time, as in: “Your dad will change you now.” “Your dad will put you to bed.” “When will your dad be home?” “Here’s your dad!” The other day at the park, my daughter was sitting in the baby swing, pronouncing her “da-da-da’s,” as she does, with insistent delight. A woman pushing her grandson asked if “mama” was also part of the repertoire, and I told her it wasn’t. “That’s how it is,” the grandmother said. “The mother does all the work. The dad gets all the glory.” The truth is, dad does plenty. But, as I suspect is the case in most two-parent households, I can’t help noting the amount of time my partner spends changing diapers, managing feedings, and keeping at least one eye on the kid, in comparison with my own lot. Freud’s concept of penis envy seems as ridiculous now as it did when I first learned of it, who knows how long ago. Dad envy, on the other hand, feels as real as the cries in the middle of the night that mean, “I want milk, and you’re the milk lady.” Though fathers are increasingly involved in taking care of their children, they still can’t give birth, or breastfeed, or feel the same kind of cultural -- and perhaps biological -- pressures that a mother does to attend to her child’s needs. And though it’s amazing to be able to practice these womanly arts, the physical and emotional challenges can wipe a new mother out. (Which is why womb envy, the most prominent feminist psychoanalytic response to Freud, also strikes me as rather dubious.) But I want to talk about literature -- comic, romantic, escapist literature: that is, dad literature. While I’ve avoided reading books about motherhood since my daughter joined the world, I have read three fantastic books about fathers taking care of small children. Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits is the latest novel by a young writer whose previous two books satirize American culture on a grand scale: one features a Las Vegas fight between a bear and a shark, the other a series of assassinations and resurrections of Upton Sinclair. Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature is an early novel by a writer The New York Times recently deemed “The Mad Scientist of Smut.” And Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa is a slim volume of diary entries by one of the patriarchs of American literature, whose most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter, gives us a tormented father unable to publicly acknowledge his child. These three writers, then, are not exactly known for tender portraits of domesticity. But their chronicles of fathers tending to little ones are the loveliest I’ve read detailing that relationship. With honesty and great charm, they depict a daily experience that’s alternately surprising, boring, exhausting, enchanting, dismaying, and heartwarming -- all within the short (and long) space of a morning or afternoon. In his introduction to Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny, Paul Auster calls this endearing little book, culled from sections of Hawthorne’s American Notebooks, the first “meticulous, blow-by-blow account of a man taking care of a young child by himself.” Twenty diary excerpts relate Hawthorne’s time with his five-year-old son, Julian, in the summer of 1851, while his wife and two daughters are out of town. Stationed at their “Red Shanty” in the Berkshires, father and son gather beans from the garden, whittle with a jackknife, venture out for milk and mail, wage war on thistles, fling stones in the lake, visit (and defile) a Shaker village, and bump into Herman Melville and invite him over for tea. A close observer of Julian’s developing personality, Hawthorne both admires his pep: “the little man kept jumping over the high weeds, and the tufts of everlasting flowers; -- while I compared his overflowing sprightliness with my own reluctant footsteps, and was content that he should be young instead of I,” and despairs of it: “He does put me almost beside my propriety; never quitting me, and continually thrusting in his word between the clauses of every sentence of all my reading, and smashing every attempt at reflection into a thousand fragments.” Set 150 years later in another Massachusetts town, Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits, just published last year, features the father of a two year old with another child on the way. A humanities professor, Abbott has the summer off, which means he’s on serious dad duty. The novel is structured as a three-month-long record of daily experiences and observations, with titles like “Abbott Takes the Garbage Out,” “Abbott Stumbles Toward a Theory of Use,” and “On the Very Possibility of Kindness,” spanning the range of banalities and profundities inspired by childcare and domestic minutiae. In “Abbott and the Paradox of Personal Growth,” hours of acorn collecting, juice spilling, bead sorting, and other toddler-prompted activities lead Abbott to wonder how he spent his summer mornings, pre-kid. “He cannot even remember, cannot contemplate the freedom, the terrible enormity of Self.” In “Father’s Day,” he proposes, “There is something beyond tedium. You can pass all the way through tedium and come out the other side, and this is Abbott’s gift today.” If Hawthorne and Abbott are pensive grumps by nature, whose children occasionally inspire moments of fatherly bliss and awe, my third favorite father is a gleeful kook on a fatherhood high. Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature, in which a guy feeds his six-month-old daughter a bottle, appeared before Vox (guy calls phone sex line and chats with equally horny and hyper-articulate gal), The Fermata (guy with the power to stop time removes women’s clothes without their knowledge), and this year’s House of Holes (lots of guys and lots of gals cavort at a fantasy sex palace). The earlier book is, wonderfully, in the same spirit as the racy romps. Baker’s narrators are fascinated by things related to both sex and childcare: basic bodily functions, the usefulness and/or kinkiness of ordinary household objects, and the oddness of intimacy with another human being. These preoccupations inspire both terrific narrative foreplay and wild tangents prompted by the simple act of rocking a baby to sleep. Room Temperature’s Mike even relishes the more tedious aspects of tending to an infant. I don’t have much patience for my daughter’s protestations when I’m trying to pull a shirt over her head. Mike, on the other hand, happily stretches out the neck holes of his daughter’s tops before sending her through them, thinking fondly of the elaborate ritual he used to perform with his underpants after a shower. “Thirty years of such little masteries could now find new twists and applications in fatherhood,” he rejoices. “I held nothing back for her! I loved her!” The pleasure I take in these books stems partly from their spot-on depictions of an experience common to many, and partly from the precise characterizations of particular parents and children. Another part of the pleasure surely comes from the position of the mother in the narrative. The object of longing, curiosity, frustration, and admiration, she is usually (or always) offstage. As the date of Hawthorne’s wife’s projected return draws closer -- it isn’t certain, the postal service and horse-drawn carriages being less dependable than cell phones and minivans -- he becomes increasingly anxious for her: “Phoebe cannot fail to shine upon us. It seems absolutely an age since she departed.” When she fails to arrive for several days, her “disconsolate” husband overflows with feeling for her: “God bless her as the best wife and mother in the world! . . . No other man has so good a wife; nobody has better children. Would I were worthier of her and them!” During Mike’s afternoon of bottle-feeding and ruminating, his wife Patty is at work. Mike’s own mother, “a colorist for Greff Fabrics,” taught him that “women were the only route out of the brown world.” As a pre-adolescent, he masturbated to an Edward Steichen photograph of a woman giving birth, inspired by “the lust-transfiguring generousness of allowing a life to pass hurtfully through her widening bones.” Still turned on by the things women do without men, Mike tells us about listening to Patty writing in a diary before bed. He tries to detect words “from the complicated sequences of felt-tipped sniffing sounds her pen made,” her recorded thoughts like a tantalizing code he can’t divine. Even Abbott’s somewhat vexed relationship with his wife is satisfying to me, in an admittedly uncharitable way, in that it casts the dad in the more harried and put-upon role. While Abbott wrangles their daughter and collects “acute and contradictory feelings” for his wife, she is often catching up on sleep, completing her own set of domestic chores, or simply existing elsewhere. I found myself cheering these elusive mothers: Let her work! Let her sleep! Let her leave town! Some of my fondest feelings toward my daughter, I must admit, rise up in me when I imagine her at home with her dad, while I’m walking across campus to teach a class, or sitting in a cafe with my laptop and a latte. Very young children follow the Buddhist path to enlightenment in at least one respect: they exist fully in the present moment. For the attending parent, the present moment is usually a scramble. Occasionally, like Mike, we may rock a sleeping child in our laps, while our imaginations wander across a great terrain of comical reminiscences, curious obsessions, and loving insights. Often, like, Abbott and Hawthorne, we muddle through the daily cycle of feeding, dressing, entertaining, and cleaning up, our physical and emotional resources rigorously tested. Only later, after the kid has, we pray, retired for the night, will we contemplate what a wonderful thing it is to watch a child (our own child!) grow and learn and become her own person. Sometimes in the evening, amidst the miraculous peace that has descended since our daughter’s been sleeping through the night in her own crib, my partner and I will realize that we miss her. Sometimes I’ll scan through my photo library, admiring pictures of her, when there are so many other things to do, things that I was desperate to do during the day, while she was demanding all of my attention. The most wonderful moments in these books gesture toward the future consciousnesses and emotional lives of children now dependent on their parents for companionship, as well as round-the-clock care. Watching Julian “riding on his rocking-horse, and talking to me as fast as his tongue can go,” Hawthorne concludes that his son’s “desire of sympathy . . . lies at the bottom of the great heap of his babblement. He wants to enrich all his enjoyments by steeping them in the heart of some friend. I do not think him in danger of living so solitary a life as much of mine has been.” To envision your child free from some personal failing or unhappiness of your own is, of course, one of the fondest dreams of parenthood. More selfishly, you hope that the child, grown to a contemplative adulthood, will think of you as a good parent. After reading my marked-up copy of Abbott Awaits, my partner chided me for not putting a check mark next to a particular passage. Reading the section over again, I saw that he was right: it’s one of the most affecting parts. After Abbott tries, and fails, to teach his daughter a lesson about delayed gratification by preventing her from immediately opening a package of stickers, he imagines her, 25 years later, bringing home a lover. In the comfort of their shared bed (Abbott and his wife, progressive parents that they are, permit the young couple to sleep together), the boyfriend reflects: “‘Your parents are great. Especially your dad. He’s really great.’” Abbott’s daughter responds: “‘When I was a kid, he was the kind of dad who wouldn’t let me put stickers on my face. And he’d correct my grammar in a way that he thought was fun and loving. And he’d tell me to be careful all the time. God, he’d tell me to be careful when I was making toast.’” The fantasy concludes, “And then they will lie together in that old bed, most likely naked, and for a long time talk about fathers, the failures of fathers.” Abbott is a wise enough dad to know that fathers inevitably fail. But the mistakes he hopes to make are of the best kind, motivated by protectiveness and care. The ever-vigilant Mike (in matters, that is, of his own idiosyncratic fascinations) contemplates the “many mouth sounds the Bug was going to notice and master in time,” including “woodblock tock[s],” “ducklike squirts,” and “the little kissy noise you could make by sucking the air from the blue cap of a Bic pen.” At the very end of Room Temperature, Mike proposes, “if in ten years Bic pens were still around, and the Bug, inconceivably long-limbed, were to chew on one as she sat in class . . . she might taste the same quizzical six-sided plastic taste and wonder why it tasted so good and so awful at the same time . . . and why the sound of her saliva fizzing through the tiny airhole in the side of the pen’s barrel was such a peculiarly satisfying, calming, thought-provoking sound.” When she brings the chewed pen home, it allows her dad to explain this odd attachment to the Bic, that it “might have something to do with the hint of plastic in the warm evaporated milk that Patty and I had fed her from a six-sided bottle on magnificent fall afternoons when she was a tiny baby, only six months old.” And so, he confesses, “Everything in my life was beginning to route itself through the Bug.” It’s hard to say, without reinforcing the obvious gender stereotypes, what makes these characters distinctly dad-like. There’s a certain sense of humor, a certain playfulness, a certain grumpiness, a fixation on some things and not on others. I don’t want to suggest that a father cares for and feels toward his children in a way that fundamentally differs from the care and emotional involvement of a mother. I’d rather read literature about parenthood than advice manuals because I want the story, not the tip; the particular impression, not the general rule. But I suspect that I’ve taken to these dad stories, as opposed to stories from a mother’s perspective, as a way of identifying with a narrative about the experience of a parent, while keeping myself a little apart from that identity. Dad envy, I think, ultimately stands less for the actual role an individual father plays in taking care of his child, than for the idea of a dad at his best: funny and easygoing most of the time, fiercely loving and tender when it counts. For a mother, for me, it comes with the opportunity to see how the man with whom my life is routed discovers for himself, day by day, what it means to be a dad. Image Credit: Flickr/Spigoo

In the Company of Amy Clampitt

Two years ago I spent some time in Lenox, Massachusetts, at a house once owned by the poet Amy Clampitt. I slept in her bed, rifled through her books, gazed out the kitchen window at the tree by which her ashes are buried. Since 2001, the house has served as a residency for poets; as the ninth Amy Clampitt Resident Fellow, my boyfriend was awarded a six-month stay. On a January weekend I helped him move into the grey clapboard house with blue-green shutters. Just down the road, The Mount, the mansion built by Edith Wharton, stood in baronial splendor. Everything about the more intimate Clampitt house struck me as perfect: the cozy living room with its comfy upholstered chairs; the loft bedroom and writing nook overlooking the snowy street; the spare bedroom crammed with boxes of Clampitt’s manuscripts, correspondence, and photographs. We found a bin stacked with copies of Clampitt’s own books of poetry, and my boyfriend noted how cool it would be to read Amy Clampitt’s Amy Clampitt’s The Kingfisher. I reluctantly caught the bus back to New York, where I had an M.F.A. thesis to write. This meant churning out and polishing short stories, and also producing a critical essay. I decided to write about Clampitt. Now I had an excuse for riding the Greyhound to Lenox as often as possible: I had research to do. But I immediately ran into trouble. I wanted to write about both Clampitt’s poetry and her house, but what was the connection between the two? Clampitt, who grew up in Iowa and spent most of her adult life in New York City, bought the house in Lenox when she was seventy-two, after winning a MacArthur grant. The places that loom large in her poems are primarily the rural landscapes of her childhood, the Manhattan streets of her adulthood, the Maine beaches where she vacationed in the summer, and the Europe of her travels—not the Berkshire towns along the Housatonic River. Six months after Clampitt moved to Lenox, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died a year and a half later. On one of her bookshelves, between Dickens and Howard Moss, I found a spiral-bound workbook called Chemotherapy and You. Some of the pages were paper-clipped, marked for use. In a piece here at The Millions, Luke Epplin discusses his visit to Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra. This house “is exceptional among existing writers’ houses,” Epplin observes, in that Neruda “managed to shape it into a manifestation of what a life dedicated to poetry might look like.” The design of the house, the attention to detail, the arrangement of treasured possessions—all seem to capture the spirit of the writer of Odes to Common Things. But even as he enjoys seeing the house as an extension of Neruda’s poetic sensibility, Epplin is suspicious of the way that such museums tend to present a limited portrait of the writers who once lived there. In his critique of the literary tourism industry, he calls on Anne Trubek’s recently published A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a book I find charming, if a bit oddly conceived. Trubek spends a lot of time describing places that irritate her. She finds writers’ houses that have been turned into museums dispiriting and even dumb. “[T]hey aim to do the impossible: to make physical—to make real—acts of literary imagination. Going to a writer’s house is a fool’s errand. We will never find our favorite characters or admired techniques within these houses; we can’t join Huck on the raft or experience Faulkner’s stream of consciousness. We can only walk through empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings and stoves.” But she keeps going, reporting on her half-hearted treks around the country with a curmudgeon’s pleasure in disparaging what she sees. The first writer’s house she visits is the Walt Whitman House in Camden, New Jersey, where Whitman published three editions of Leaves of Grass and an autobiography, Specimen Days. Whitman died in this house, but, Trubek notes, “The house is set up, as are most house museums, to fool us into thinking that Whitman was still living there.” His things, or replicas of his things, are staged in a way that Trubek finds false. Though writers’ houses are meant to make their former inhabitants come alive, Trubek observes, “They remind me of death.” In Lenox I became friendly with the poet Karen Chase, a great friend of Clampitt’s in the last few years of her life, and one of her literary executors. Karen was at Clampitt’s bedside when she died. We talked about this one morning in the kitchen of the house that Karen helped to furnish, taking her friend on “junking” trips to local antique stores. Karen told me that after the funeral the cleaning lady set up a little memorial to Clampitt: a table with a doily and an arrangement of Clampitt’s books, along with books by Edith Wharton. “I sort of messed it up,” Karen said with a touch of pride. “It was museum-like. It would have gone against her grain in the deepest way.” Trying to learn who Clampitt was (or Amy, as I really thought of her, longing for intimacy), I stared at the framed photograph of a woman both lanky and pixie-like, prim and hippieish, standing in a whirl of autumn leaves. I read her letters, filled with descriptions of European trips and anti-war rallies, the books on her nightstand and the flowers in her window box. And of course I read the four books that make up her Collected Poems, mostly on bus trips between Manhattan and Lenox. I was pleased to think of Clampitt herself, suddenly a poet in demand in her sixties, riding Greyhound to give readings and lectures. The poems that struck me the most, the poems I decided to focus on in my M.F.A. thesis essay, were her portraits of the dead, at once somber and lovely. “A Winter Burial” describes a woman’s death, which seems as lonely as her time in a nursing home: . . . one nightfall when the last weak string gave way that had held whatever she was, that mystery, together, the bier that waited—there were no planes coming in, not many made it to the funeral, the blizzard had been so bad, the graveyard drifted so deep, so many severed limbs of trees thrown down, they couldn’t get in to plow an opening for the hearse, or shovel the cold white counterpane from that cell in the hibernal cupboard, till the day after. This is bleak, indeed: an old forgotten woman literally buried even deeper by a snowstorm. Still, the music of the poem—those lovely incantatory final lines—dignifies the death in a way, placing it not in a sterile box, but in a space of privacy that the snow-covered earth allows. Clampitt’s poems memorialize the dead not by portraying the person who once lived, but by paying acute attention to place, sometimes places where the subject died or is buried, sometimes places that invoke the relentless flow of time and history. One of her most famous poems, “A Procession at Candlemas,” observes, “Sooner or later / every trek becomes a funeral procession.” She’s also wise to the way that paying tribute to a place can profane it, the kind of thing that troubles Trubek. “Amherst” refers to the worshippers who flock to Emily Dickinson’s house on the anniversary of her death: “the wistful, / the merely curious, in her hanging dress discern / an ikon; her ambiguities are made a shrine, / then violated.” Clampitt includes herself in this group: “we’ve drunk champagne above her grave, declaimed / the lines of one who dared not live aloud.” She wants to address her—“(Dear Emily, though, / seems too intrusive, Dear Miss Dickinson too prim)”—even as she knows this makes her part of the adoring crowd that reduces the woman to literary icon. As an alternative to preserving a writer’s house, Trubek suggests greater attention to his or her work. Reflecting on the plans to restore Langston Hughes’ former house in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood, she asks, “Why not redirect our energy to reading Hughes rather than restoring his house . . . ? His books are plentiful and inexpensive. It would not be cost prohibitive to give every resident of Fairfax a book, or every teacher a classroom set of, say, Poetry for Young People.” After visiting Louisa May Alcott’s house, one of an exhausting number of literary sites in Concord, Massachusetts, Trubek reflects, “Here’s what I wish for Alcott, today: Her books assigned in schools as often as are Huck Finn or Catcher in the Rye; her reputation remade into that of the tortured romantic genius; it would also be nice to have a foundation in her honor dedicated to offering women writers grants or scholarships for female writers.” To promote the work, to elevate the status of a woman writer, to support other writers: these are worthy goals, and the Clampitt House, in its quiet way, fosters them. While the lavish Mount down the road lets tourists see where Wharton wrote The House of Mirth and other novels, perhaps increasing the readership of these books, it could be argued that the Clampitt House is better for writers (if only, so far, eleven of them) by providing a place to stay rent-free for an extended period of time and get work done. I imagine Trubek would approve of the Clampitt House: not a memorial, but a practical living space. I don’t think Clampitt envisioned that her house would one day serve, in her name, as a temporary home for other poets. Her husband, who lived for seven years after her death, came up with the idea for the residency program. I do know that she had some romantic ideas about the former dwelling places of writers she admired. In her essay “A Poet’s Henry James,” she writes, “When I made a pilgrimage to Rye a couple of summers ago, it was with the objective of standing on the spot where Henry James dictated The Ambassadors.” In the essay I completed as part of my M.F.A. thesis, I wrote about the experience of staying in the house of a writer who had died there, and I wrote about Clampitt’s poems that deal with death. I don’t think I quite found a successful way to link them. But though it puts me in danger of romanticizing Clampitt and the place she once lived, I can’t help but feel that her expansive poems about loss are connected to the cozy grey clapboard house in Lenox. According to Trubek, “writers’ houses are by definition melancholy.” There is something melancholy about the Clampitt House. As Clampitt observes about Dickinson’s house, the poet’s “ambiguities” are inevitably given over to strangers’ imaginings of what she must have been like. It’s a good kind of melancholy, though, the kind that allows us to miss people we’ve never met. During a talk she gave at Grinnell forty-five years after she had graduated from the small Iowa college, Clampitt addressed the question of what a writer needs to know. “In one word, I’d say, predecessors. I don’t know why it is that things become more precious with the awareness that someone else has looked at them, thought about them, written about them. But so I find it to be . . . .Writers need company. We all need it.” Image: Clampitt House, courtesy the author

Writing Outside Realism: Aimee Bender’s Magical Power

Several years ago I took a weekend workshop with Aimee Bender at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House. The class was called “Writing Outside Realism,” and it was an excellent reminder of why writing fiction is fun. (I don’t know about you, but I need a lot of reminding.) We invented opposites (What’s the opposite of a three-legged dog in a field? A mansion on fire. What’s the opposite of the Moonlight Sonata Prom, Chicago? Mobsterville, Long Island). We drew from a deck of optical illusion cards to create relationships between characters. Bender offered advice on writing non-realist fiction that isn’t a cop-out. No alarm clocks at the end of the story, waking readers up from the fictional dream, and no mini alarm clocks either, buzzing us out of bizarre moments. Also, no “they’re all cows stories,” by which she meant something like no cheap tricks. Writing stories with a conventional beginning, middle, and end bored her, she said. Her daily guide for how a story is coming along is to ask herself, Am I still interested in this? I’m always interested in Bender-style fun, and so when I heard she had a new novel on the way, I asked for an advance copy. Like Eryn Loeb here at The Millions, I devoured The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and enjoyed its sweet, melancholy flavors. If I hadn’t read Bender’s superb story collections, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures, I would have felt satiated: a delightful, imaginative, affecting novel—an ample serving of literary entertainment. Because if reading Bender's stories was like creeping downstairs in the middle of the night to eat all the leftover cake with my hands -- that much better for the darkness, for the raw, guilty lust -- this new novel is summer afternoon, garden party fare. In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Rose discovers that she can taste her mother’s unhappiness in her ninth birthday cake. Sickened by this unfortunate magical power, Rose seeks out food from vending machines, from boxes and cans—food that tastes of the blandness of factories, not the pungency of human emotions. Rose’s family exudes quirkiness and harbors secrets; they are intriguing, idiosyncratic characters. But as we follow them through the novel, we become accustomed to their eccentricities. Their weirdness and loneliness come to seem less weird and less lonely. Though Rose’s daily struggles to connect with her family and to eat a meal without ingesting the suffering of others are engaging, her story doesn’t feel urgent. Still, the tenderness of the language consistently enchants, and Bender skillfully captures the way that people in families, though they may all live in the same house, can be fundamentally mysterious to each other. About her brother, Rose wonders: “what he knew about the family; what he didn’t know. What family he lived in.” The height of intimacy between Rose and her dad is sitting on the couch together watching a medical drama on TV. The fantastical conceit of the book—Rose’s ability to taste people’s emotions in the food they’ve prepared—is easily translated as the dilemma of a perceptive kid among willfully oblivious adults. The kid feels smarter than the adults, and that’s kind of interesting, but it’s also disconcerting. Nevertheless, she grows up and finds ways to cope. Though the lemon cake tastes bitter to Rose, it’s still lemon cake. Bender’s first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, does for numbers what The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake does for food. It invests them with emotional power, as sources of magic, obsession, and anxiety in a young woman’s life. Mona teaches math to elementary school students, and her innovative methods are part of the book’s unsettling fun. In her Numbers and Materials sessions, second graders bring number-shaped materials to class to practice subtraction. Danny, whose father lost an arm, brings in the arm (encased in glass) to represent a one. Lisa, whose mother is dying of cancer, presents an I.V. tube for a zero. Mona herself contributes an axe as a seven. Violence and disease lurk in this town, where the most notable site is the twelve-story hospital built entirely of blue glass. Despite the gloomy milieu, the overall tone here is whimsical. Bender’s inventive details entertain, and the voices of the characters are fresh and poignant, particularly those of the children, who could have been overly cute in the hands of a lesser writer. The novel captures the experience of a beginning teacher who can relate to her class because she’s childlike herself, in both appealing and crippling ways. She is strong-willed, imaginative, and alert to adult phoniness. She’s also afraid of adult desire (in the form of a cute science teacher who teaches about health by having kids act out the symptoms of various diseases) and terrified of what she doesn’t understand about her own parents. The best part of the book—and here again I’ll betray my preference for Bender in her sharp, succinct mode—is the story that frames it. The Prologue gives us the tale of a kingdom where everyone lived forever. Then one day, because of overcrowding, the king orders everyone to sacrifice a family member. One family’s solution is to each sacrifice body parts—a leg, an arm, an ear, a foot, a head of hair, a nose—and so they live on, dismembered but together. The Prologue closes with Mona’s revelation that her father told her this story on her tenth birthday, setting off the feelings of alienation from family and self that plague her for the next ten years. At the end of the novel, Lisa -- she of the I.V. for a zero, the dying mother -- asks Mona for a math story. Mona tells her a version of her father's story, about a pirate kingdom where “there were no glass hospitals and red wigs and I.V.’s,” where “[c]ancer was not a big deal.” The king, an astute mathematician, calculates that each household must choose one pirate to die. But this time, rather than see her family mutilated, the daughter decides to move to another, mortal, town, despite their warning that “Once you die, you won’t get to hear or walk or use your hands or comb your hair at all.” This mournful tale illuminates Mona’s struggle to separate from her family, as well as her capacity to reach out to this little girl who is about to lose her mother. It’s beautiful how the two versions of the story act as metaphors for the journey Mona takes in the novel. It’s also striking how much Bender can convey in the small space of a bittersweet fairytale. Bender was asked in an interview, collected in Conversations with American Women Writers, “What draws you to the fairy tale method of storytelling,” and she replied, “Everything. The imagination, the brevity, the violence, the sexuality, the humor, the great weird simple laden images like glass coffins, the melting feeling of being told a story. All of it.” Bender’s collections offer us all of this, story after story. In “End of the Line,” from Willful Creatures, Bender creates one of her wonderful fables. A man goes to a pet store and buys a little man in a cage. He likes the little man’s stories, and he also gets a kick out of torturing him. “His little body was so small it was hard to imagine it hurt that much.” But of course it does hurt, and finally the man unlocks the door of his captive’s cage. When the little man heads toward home, the big man follows him.  Shut out of the tiny village, he picks up a hat the size of his thumb. A little girl watches “the giant outside put her hat on his enormous head and could not understand the size of the pity that kept unbuckling in her heart.” The story is rich with metaphorical possibility, and thanks to the great precision and idiosyncrasy of the details, you never feel that it’s operating on an easily translatable (and thus crude) symbolic level. Bender’s favorite quote is from André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto: “Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything.” About Breton’s directive, she told The New York Times, “I love it, but I don't know if I exactly understand it.” Her stories understand it. “Motherfucker,” another story in Willful Creatures, charmingly defines the personage of its title not as a consummate jerk, but as a man who romantically pursues mothers. His latest conquest is a movie star, loved by all and deeply sad, though only the motherfucker can see this.  “Desire is a house. Desire needs closed space,” he tells her, and their lovemaking is “a house of desire the exact size and shape of her.” It doesn’t work out between them—she has her career, he has so many other single mothers to service—and we feel that this is how it should be, these two souls left with the loneliness of their desire. Reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I craved the harshness of the stories, in which the characters are often unkind and reckless, their motives rash and self-destructive. They can be deceitful in ways that are cruel, but funny. The promiscuous narrator in “Fell This Girl” from The Girl in a Flammable Skirt relies on her depressed, overweight sister Eleanor to make her feel better about herself. “I love to go shopping with Eleanor because in contrast I look so great in everything,” she says. In “Fugue,” an “ugly child,” who had been “an ugly teenager” and is now “an ugly adult,” takes a job at a factory where he deliberately puts pills in the wrong bottles. Before that he had a job teaching English to immigrants, and he taught them that “pussy means woman and asshole means friend.” The pleasure of these stories about not very nice people lies in the acerbity of their thoughts, the deviousness of their actions. And the pleasure of the stories about surreal people—a family of pumpkinheads, a woman with potato babies, a girl with a hand of fire, a boy with fingers shaped like keys—lies in their surprising otherness, which is simultaneously inaccessible and moving. Bender’s novels and her stories, then, feed somewhat different desires. Rose and Mona of the novels are endearing, realistic figures. We like and trust them and hope they will learn to resolve the challenges that life has presented them. We affect the position of a sympathetic observer, cheering on our heroine, trying to understand her struggles. The stories, on the other hand, offer creeping-downstairs-in-the-middle-of-the-night fun. Arousing our many appetites, they lead us out of our houses, our small towns, ourselves—and down one of the saddest roads to everything.