When I was a kid I would wander down the block, four houses over, to visit our neighborhood “grandma,” Mrs. Koski.
At her house I was treated to Cheetos and stories. There wasn’t any junk food in my house so staining my fingers with chemical-orange was a thrill, but what I really loved was settling into Mrs. Koski’s giant couch with a beautiful, old book of fairytales. This was just about the time I was learning how to read, a process that in retrospect strikes me as magical.
The funny thing about growing up is that we seem to forget about magic. Maybe it’s because things get more complicated, or maybe it’s because we just think they do. Every now and then I encounter a book that takes me back a couple decades and makes me feel like I’m happily curled up on Mrs. Koski’s couch. Willful Creatures is one of those books.
Aimee Bender’s stories are smart, funny and startlingly original, but above all they capture a specific kind of whimsy that is rarely seen in contemporary fiction. She imbues her stories with a sense of wonder, which is not to be confused with optimism, but is actually a kind of sad thoughtfulness about the world. I read so much literature that is weighed down with an overwhelming sense of misfortune. Maybe it’s all that depressive realism that seems to be popping up lately—sorrow and heartbreak abound on every page. I love sorrow and heartbreak as much as the next person—it’s often the stuff of great literature—but what I love about Willful Creatures is that Bender is able to capture the darkest side of the human experience without sinking into despair. Her knack for revealing true human emotion is stunning, but even more surprising is her ability to capture tragic moments without filling her characters with hopelessness.
It’s difficult to describe Willful Creatures without making the stories sound unbelievable. One of the stories is about a big man who buys a little man and keeps him in a cage as a pet. Another is about a child born with an iron for a head to pumpkin head parents. One story follows a boy who has keys for fingers, and in another we see a woman who makes words out of air. In the hands of a less capable writer, this collection might be too silly, but Bender makes them serious and seriously funny. Her mastery lies in the fact that she can write stories that spill over with imagination and still feel completely connected to the real world.
It’s often said that good books act as companions and that could certainly be said of Willful Creatures. But more than that, it is clear reflection into a world that is infinitely unfair. Bender’s characters may seem strange and fantastical, but she isn’t writing about another set of lives. She isn’t writing about some other world. She is writing about us, about our strange world. I love this book because it reminds me that magical moments don’t go away just because you grow up.