The Girl in the Flammable Skirt: Stories

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Sex and the Single Librarian

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One of the frustrations of being a librarian — right up there with irritating patrons and not being allowed to drink coffee at work — is the occupational stereotyping. Like nuns and teachers, librarians tend to be depicted in books and movies as elderly spinsters, rigid and frigid. More recently, in a predictable attempt to subvert convention, the slutty librarian trope has emerged — young, hot-blooded, yet not exempt from the cats-eye glasses. As a librarian, it’s hard to see this as much of an improvement.

“Everyone has a librarian fantasy,” asserts the librarian-narrator of Aimee Bender’s story “Quiet Please,” from her collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, and then she sets out to prove herself correct, propositioning the patrons at the circulation desk and taking them into the back room. There is, naturally, eyewear to be torn off, long hair to be let down, and an overpowering smell in the mysterious and otherwise off-limits area behind the desk.

Nothing so exciting happened to me during my floundering career as a librarian, though I enjoyed the ceremony of putting on white gloves to handle a rare material. In some ways, I embarked on being a librarian as if it were an extended game of dress-up, attracted more to the stereotype of what it would be like — a quiet, bookish job in pleasant surroundings — than genuine interest in the profession as it really is now. I had once gone to a Halloween party dressed as a librarian — a “real one,” I feel it necessary to mention, not a sexy drunk one with date-stamps on her midriff. The night was a success and may have weighed on my subconscious when, a few years later, I decided to actually become a real one. I already had the right skirt.

In retrospect, this decision seems to owe too much to the Parker Posey movie Party Girl, in which a stint in the library puts a young woman’s disordered life into order. In the movie, the rules of the library straighten out the protagonist, who finds peace and purpose through correct use of the Dewey Decimal System.

Recently, at a professional crossroads in my library career, I read two books that happened to be about young women’s sexual identity and their journeys into — and out of — librarianship. Both books are set in an earlier era, and yet some elements remain extremely familiar.

In Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, originally published in 1958 but reprinted in 2007, Sally Jay Gorce, struggling to make it as an actress, moves to Paris, where she encounters a man so magnetic that when he clasps her hand in a café, she has an orgasm. Unfortunately, such concentrated charisma tends to lead to regrettable acts, and after many adventures, Sally Jay renounces the depravity of Paris and returns to New York to become a librarian: “And (here it comes): a librarian is just not that easy to become…Apparently there’s a whole filing system and annotating system and stamping system and God knows what you have to learn before you qualify.”

Revirginalized by her new occupation, she moves into an all-girls residence hotel and begins shelving books. Within paragraphs she has dropped some on the head of a male patron. The next morning, he asks her to marry him. (“I’m tired of living in sin with you.”) The whole good-natured romp of it bespeaks a clear message: Bad girls are redeemed in the library. Casually promiscuous would-be actresses can be reissued as the wives of successful photographers. No matter how many times an item is checked out, when it returns to the library, its past is wiped clean.

Just as being in the library exerts a purifying influence on hot-blooded Sally Jay, close proximity to libraries paradoxically brings wholesome girls into the orbit of depravity. This is a theme of certain paperbacks on eBay and also more tastefully and literarily rendered of Beverly Cleary’s memoir My Own Two Feet. In it, Cleary, then Beverly Bunn, is ambitious, hardworking, warm-hearted, and sensible — more Beezus than Ramona.

As a library school student, she and her classmates at the University of Washington concoct wholesome cataloguing challenges, like “an imaginary series of books…six volumes, each with a different editor or sometimes two, one of whom wrote under a pseudonym and the other under her maiden name, some volumes translated from foreign languages.”

And yet a less wholesome undercurrent intrudes. When she wears a red dress to work, a man whispers to her, “You look like bait in that dress.” When she’s chastised by the senior librarian for her sloppy handwriting, the word “fetish” is invoked: “I don’t want to make a fetish of printing, but…” Later, working in an army library, the commanding officer, “a huge man, tall and heavyset…sat up, reached out, pulled me toward him so I was standing between his knees, gave me two pats on my bottom, and said, “So you’re a librarian. You can have the job anytime you want it.”

What is most affecting about Cleary’s book is her evocation of the Depression and the grind of survival. In the girls’ co-op where she lived, residents earned part of their keep through chores and were not allowed to sit on the beds, which Cleary explains cheerily was no hardship for her as she never had been allowed to at home either. The idea was not to wear out the mattress prematurely.

Rules like this seem unbearably intrusive now, 75 years later. In the decades since Cleary was a librarian, many aspects of the profession have changed. Books are no longer the only, or perhaps most important, element of a library. Handwriting doesn’t much matter, though competency with technology is useful. But though there is still tension about what the library and librarians of today should be, the connection between librarians and sex is surprisingly persistent.

Licentiousness in an atmosphere of restraint comes through in Tony Hoagland’s poem “Not Renouncing,” which begins:
I always thought that I was going to catch Elena
in the library one afternoon, and she would shove me gently backwards
into the corridor of 822.7 in the Dewey Decimal System,
where we would do it in the cul-de-sac of 18th century drama.
Why in the library? Maybe it’s the covetousness brought out from being around large quantities of things which may be borrowed, and renewed for two more weeks more, but may never actually be possessed? Or, perhaps, in a place where the mind is paramount, the body finds a way to remind you that it’s the one that brought you and will take you home.

Nicholson Baker’s work presents one possibility for where librarians are headed. Baker may be best known for Vox, a phone sex extravaganza, and The Fermata, with its memorable descriptions of non-consensual sex acts with women stopped in time. In 2011, he published House of Holes: A Book of Raunch. Amid these projects, he wrote a New Yorker article lamenting the demise of card catalogs and the 2001 book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, which castigated librarians, in entertainingly severe terms, for discarding old newspapers. Librarians were shaken by the book and responded with a tsunami of aggrieved articles, blog posts, and even a pedantic book-length rejoinder, Richard Cox’s Vandals in the Stacks?

Baker, who writes about sex acts with pointillist attention to sensation and pragmatics, brings a similar level of attentive scrutiny to librariana — the card catalogs, annotations, marginalia, paper, and ink. The point of these objects, in Baker’s view, is that they bear up to sustained close attention, that each one is capable of an authentic and individual response that no scan or facsimile can provide. Compared to the original object, using a microfilm surrogate is, Baker quotes, “like kissing through a pane of glass.” There is something pretentiously smutty about the attention he lavishes on a broadsheet newspaper or his painstaking examination of penciled notes on catalog cards, recto and verso. But isn’t that what people want from their lovers, even more than from their librarians — to be examined, catalogued, known?

In Baker’s vision, libraries and librarians are in danger of becoming the opposite — soulless information providers like Siri, or Scarlett Johansson’s breathy-voiced character in the movie Her — efficient, non-corporal, excellent at answering standard reference questions, and only an illusion of humanity simultaneously conversing with hundreds or thousands of others.

In contrast, a more human-centered view of the librarian appears in The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken. Although its protagonist has some stereotypical librarian characteristics — she’s inexperienced at love and lives in a small town, in this case on Cape Cod — McCracken actually was a librarian, and her depiction of librarians is more sympathetic, more nuanced, and more like a job than like a long way of saying “shrew.” McCracken’s book, set in the 1950s and published in 1996, doesn’t so much turn a librarian stereotype inside out as bring us inside to inhabit it. Her librarian, Peggy, starts as a “perfect public servant: deferential, dogged, oblivious to insults…I conformed myself always to the needs of the patrons.” Peggy is serviceable, “a piece of civic furniture, like a polling machine at town hall.” She wears dreary skirts and patched underwear. Although she’s an incisive observer of library patrons — and for a librarian, one of the joys of this book is its sharp critique of the patrons — the library is also her refuge, from relationships and even growing up: “In eighth grade it seemed that puberty was a campaign whose soldiers could not find me — I was…already in a nook in the library, while puberty, like polio, struck the kids who hung around in crowds by the swimming pool or punch bowl.”

The Giant’s House embraces every librarian stereotype, from clunky shoes to coiled bun: There’s a scene where a man pulls off Peggy’s little hat, bobby pins clatter to the ground, and her hair falls loose around her shoulders. “Much better,” he says. But there’s a difference, a subversion. Peggy is complicit in living the stereotype, and it is her own perspective that is for once central and her pleasure in her work that comes through. The satisfaction of giving a patron the right book — one the patron hadn’t imagined existed — that, she says knowingly, is “a reference librarian’s fantasy.”

Inevitably, Peggy falls in love with a patron (the giant of the title, who is just a teenager), gets pregnant, is cagey about the father, and is fired from her job for violating public decency. And yet, however much you love libraries, this is a happy ending. Peggy wears lightly her new status as a scandalous woman, a giant’s lover, a legend in town. After all, who better to know how a story like this must end?

Image Credit: pexels/Anastasia Mya.

Childish Things: Aimee Bender’s The Color Master

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I’ve enjoyed Aimee Bender’s writing since 2005 when I picked up a hardcover of Willful Creatures, her second collection of short stories. I was fourteen at the time, and not a big reader. I read the books that were assigned in school, that’s the best and the worst I could say of it. But I read Bender’s book over and over again. I developed a rhythm to my reading, which soon bordered on ritualism; for the first time in my life it became imperative that I read the book in a certain place, at particular times of day. It seemed possible for some whiff of the environment that hovered around the book to enter it and slightly alter the stories contained in the chrysalis of its twin covers.

Each story in the collection incorporates an element that brazenly, nakedly does not fit. There’s the one about the man with keys for fingers, the son who is born with an anvil for a head, and the woman forced to choose between complete autonomy and raising a family of potatoes. These stories are quirky, creepy, even awkward and gimmicky in parts, the way a fairytale can be when one puts away childish things. The collection opens with the pared-down parable of ten men who go to the doctor and are each told that they have three weeks to live. In “Marzipan,” from Bender’s debut collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, a man wakes up with a hole in his stomach one week after his father dies; his wife soon gives birth to her own mother. Bender’s great gift to us all is her fierce unwillingness to give up her childishness. Instead, she grows into it, deepens it, allows it to become old and finicky.

This courage of stirring, strange, tireless creatures is still present in Bender’s most recent collection, The Color Master, but here their will to play has become somewhat more muted.

The first story in the collection, “Appleless” is the strongest — exquisite, crisp, and deeply unsettling at its core. In it, a woman who does not eat apples is gang raped in an orchard, consumed and enjoyed like a piece of fruit: “We find her in there, and she is so warm and so alive…She is weeping into our arms, she is crumpling down, and we are inside her clothes now, and our hands and mouths are everywhere.” Each story that Bender writes is voiced like a myth. Bender’s writing teaches us that every story is potentially familiar — as if it had been told for centuries and nurtured in many faithful mouths — so long as one tells it just so. For this purpose, she strips the story down to its mythic kernel. The characters have no names. The “we” who carry out the heinous act have apples, and they have their way with “the girl,” yet they are also described as “starving” before and after the act as they sit around eating apples all day. There is such a lack of explanation, of gaining anything, that the story manages to fuse two classic, tragic figures: the one who cannot enjoy what he has, and the one who has metamorphosed so that she cannot enjoy her own body. The entire story can be read in the time it takes to eat an apple.

The subterfuge of mistaken identity that structures “Appleless” (at a metonymic rather than narratological level) motivates every story in Bender’s new collection. Often, the characters write these mistakes into their own lives, impulsively, ecstatically, tragically. In “The Fake Nazi” a man confesses to the police that he was a Nazi, though he never was, out of some misshapen embodiment of collective guilt and grief. An “auburn-haired secretary” finds out about his story and becomes obsessed with discovering each of its moving parts. She feels that members of her generation, born after the Holocaust, unburdened (or burdened in different ways) by its memory, “formed their identities in the negative space instead.” This space is deprived of context, clues, even adequate language; those who inhabit it self-actualize by ratifying their status as “mistake” — the part that does not fit.

In “Faceless” a similar appeal to this negative space, so fitful and yearning in Bender’s earlier work, has degraded into a comforting binary. A young boy named William is diagnosed with “facial illiteracy.” Translation: He has trouble discerning facial expressions, and his mother is not OK with this. It is unclear whether this abnormality stems from a neurological disorder or a social one — his unwillingness to make snap judgments. Embedded in this identity crisis is a thinly veiled and fairly annoying solicitation of the reader to question what it means to be “literate,” to read more closely the world around them (perhaps the book they are gazing upon?)

Which leads me to the main problem I had with this book: too many of its stories are overwrought with anxiety over how to be a good reader and writer. And too often the result is that they fret themselves into a corner, with Bender at times opting for simple, sleepy language that does not dare begin to scale the heights of these actually worrisome questions. This is the risk anyone runs when telling stories with an epic sheen, that they will reflect the moralizing tropes of the ages.

The age that seems to pose the largest problem to Bender, who has the skill to write tenderly about ogres out of space and time, is our own. In “Wordkeepers,” a woman’s vocabulary starts getting away from her. Like so many flimsy, high-gloss magazine articles before her, she implicates technology, lodging a shallow, whiny complaint: “I can’t remember the words of things. The words for words. I have lost my words. What’s this from? Is it the Internet? Texting? E-mail?” No doubt, parts of language have become speedy and surgical to a fault — words are shoved into e-mails, shipped off to ad campaigns, squeezed into the sausage casing of 140 characters per thought. But Bender’s frustration overwhelms her in this story, and she loses her gleeful ability to discover more through play. “In some study, they say phones and computers are replacing our cerebral cortexes, externalizing our thoughts so that we do not need to think them,” Bender writes. But this is as far as she is willing to go; she externalizes the problem only to cower before it.

This story is wildly different from the tale that best manifests Bender’s anxiety over language in Willful Creatures called “Fruit and Words.” In it, a woman with a craving for mangos discovers a shack fifty miles outside of Vegas. There she finds mangos, and far more than she bargained for — shelves brimming with words, each made from the very thing they signify. “They were piled high on shelves, making big words and small words, crammed close together, letters overlapping,” Bender writes, “They were beautiful on their own and they were beautiful all together.” There is the ocean, piped through a twisting tube that spells “OCEAN”; the word “PEARL” seems, impossibly, carved from a single, opalescent slab of pearl.

The woman decides to buy a word. She picks out the very first word she noticed upon entering the store, “NUT”, made from seven kinds of nuts, as the shopkeeper proudly announces, including “garbanzo”:
“Isn’t garbanzo a bean?” I asked

She held it out to me. “I’ll give it to you for fourteen,” she said. “Two dollars a nut.”

There was a ten in my wallet between four ones and I lifted them all out…”
Later, while perusing the gaseous and emotive words, the narrator runs into a spot of trouble. She accidentally breaks the word “AIR,” and, waving her hand in a protective gesture to shield her from the shopkeeper’s rage, she also breaks “HOPE.” The narrator begins to suspect a scam (the “you break it, you buy it” store policy doesn’t help). There are far too many parts to comment upon in this complex, coruscating tale; so much fodder for another, more exhaustive essay.  But I will say this: There is an art to haggling over words.

Bender trades in language like a pro, but this time her hand is shaky, her questions more daunting. Hardly any characters escape the influence of her anxiety. Like the secretary from “The Fake Nazi” who proclaims, “One day you will open your mouth when it is imperative that you use it, and nothing will come out.” Or the opening line of her story “A State of Variance”: “On her fortieth birthday, the woman lost the ability to sleep for more than a single hour.” However, occasionally, there comes along a tyrannical worry, one worth listening to, with the force to launch one thousand brave retellings. For me, this epic scope lives in the line, “It’s unsettling to meet people who don’t eat apples.”

A Year in Reading: Rachel Syme


“We were talking about The Bell Jar, because we were sixteen, and we wanted to be depressed in New York.” – Deborah Willis, Vanishing

I tend to like and lean towards creative things made by womenfolk—perhaps it has to do with being handed a Cibo Matto mixtape at a crucial point of adolescence or deciding to major in post-1945 yonic-ceramic-art-history in college (yes! I really did this!); yellow-wallpapered observations are always my default reads. But this year, I found myself reading almost exclusively female writers–and more specifically, their collections of short stories. As Lorrie Moore puts it (best, always best), I have entered “that awful stage of life between twenty-six to and thirty-seven known as stupidity,” and the best way I’ve found to navigate—or at least subsist within—it are these compact little morsels of ladywriting, with beginnings, middles, and ends. I blame the Internet and Saturn’s return.

My favorite discovery this year was Canadian bookseller Deborah Willis, whose debut collection Vanishing and Other Stories really floored me. Willis has this airy, almost giggly writing voice that sounds like a Valley Girl gifted with an Oxford education (example: “What I did understand, later but still way before Claudia did, was that it was impossible. That we could never break free. No matter what we did, we could never separate them from us. Our bodies were built by the lentils and flax they’d fed us. Their bone structure lingered in our faces.”) The title story in her collection is told by a woman whose neurotic author father mysteriously left his attic office one day and just never returned—the narrator is still stunned by it after so many years, this spectral longing, this losing a person due to the fact that they simply do not wish to be found. If you have time to read one more short story this year, consider making that one it.

Willis’ work reminded me a bit, but not too much, of Aimee Bender’s wonderful, casual magical realism, which I am (utterly, blushingly) ashamed to say was a 2010 revelation. Her latest novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake–about people who eat their feelings in every literal way–was one of my favorite long reads this year, but I found myself gravitating more often in quiet moments to her debut story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, which contains one of the best descriptions of losing love I’ve found. A woman’s lover experiences “reverse evolution,” becoming a monkey, then a salamander-like primitive creature that she must let out to sea. “Sometimes I think he’ll wash up on shore,” she writes. “A naked man with a startled look. Who has been to history and back.” And isn’t that what we all want from past loves? Bewilderment and a sudden return to our stoop. Point: Bender.

Last cold front, I dove headfirst in the Mary Gaitskill oeuvre after seeing her read at the Center for Fiction early in the year, gobbling down Don’t Cry and Bad Behavior (again, deep shame of not getting there sooner). I also found and courted and decided to settle in with Amy Bloom, particularly Come to Me—which was the winner in the “story openings I wish I’d written” category: “I wasn’t surprised to find myself in the back of Mr. Klein’s store, wearing only my undershirt and panties, surrounded by sable.”

The last woman-penned story collection I read was Michele Latiolais’ forthcoming Widow, which is weird and sad and compulsive and continues to stick to my ribs. Latiolais writes about grief in such a raw way—she joins the general pantheon of No-More-Husband literature (high priestess: J-Did), but her style is so unique as to be another genre altogether.

And also! Danielle Evans’ Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, which nails so much in so little space.

Writing Outside Realism: Aimee Bender’s Magical Power

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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.

Surprise Me!