The Stuff Of Wonder
Willful Creatures: Stories
by Aimee Bender.
New York: Doubleday, 2005, 224 pp., $22.95, hardcover.
Magic For Beginners
by Kelly Link.
Northampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2005, 272 pp., $24.00, hardcover.
Nice Big American Baby
by Judy Budnitz.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, 304 pp., $23.00, hardcover.
In Aimee Bender's short story "Fruit and Words," a woman is driving through the desert when she's struck by a craving for a mango. Jilted at the altar, with the road before her like "a long, dry tongue," the woman is desperate for something she's never tasted. Suddenly, she spots a roadside shack overflowing with fresh fruit.
Inside, the woman finds papayas, starfruit, peaches, pears. She gathers armfuls of mangoes. As she pays the woman who owns the store, the narrator makes another discovery: the back wall of the store is covered with words, each created from the substance it signifies. LEMON is twisted from pulp and rinds; HAIR curls from hanks of strawberry-blond. And these are just the solids. "Liquids are in the back," the storeowner says. "Gases are in the back of the back. Both are very pricey."
The narrator wanders the back rooms. She is unimpressed by the tubes shaping the word WATER, keen on the ferns in a splash of LAKE. She wonders if BLOOD is really blood-and if so, whose? In the room of gaseous words, her skepticism grows. The shelves are blank. Despite what the storeowner says, the narrator sees no ARGON, so painstakingly captured and molded. When the narrator reaches to wipe mango juice from her fingers, the storeowner shrieks: the narrator has broken AIR-and she has shattered HOPE.
Like all of the stories in Bender's second collection, Willful Creatures, "Fruit and Words" is at once comic, sad, witty, and wondrous. Throughout the book, the ethereal and otherworldly are grounded in ordinary, human limitations. For example, the storeowner insists that the narrator pay for the broken HOPE-it is store policy-and the narrator protests. Yet as the storeowner describes attending weddings and capping the bottle with each "I do," the narrator recognizes the substance of her own failed relationship: "how at first when we'd kissed his lips had been a boat made of roses and how now they were a freight train of lead." Soon after, in the driveway where her fiancé once parked, the narrator finds that her mangoes have rotted to the core.
Bizarre yet satisfying, no single word captures the fictions of Aimee Bender, whose first collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, and novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, have garnered national acclaim. On the surface, Bender's work seems just plain odd. Distilled to premises, the stories in Willful Creatures are a carnival marquee: over here, the boy with keys for fingers; there, the iron-headed child, the potato babies, the little man in a cage. But in any truly moving fiction, premise is just where the story begins, not its substance. Premise is the launch pad, not the rocket. Beautiful writing directs our eyes to the rocket and its ascent to starry heights.
The stories in Willful Creatures are similarly transcendent. And if HOPE can be shaped from wedding vows, we might imagine a way to capture the substance of Bender's stories. For in Bender's hands, STORY assumes its own miraculous shape, crystalline as a cloud. This is not to say her stories drift by in simple whiteness. This cloud is no child's drawing. Rather, STORY, as crafted by Aimee Bender, is icy, intricate, compressed, and mysterious. Like clouds, the fifteen stories in Willful Creatures assume different textures. Some are incandescent with moonlight; others loom, darkly violent. Some drop live toads in our buckets. And almost all are filled with rain.
Indeed, Bender's stories are laden with sadness, despite their absurd premises. In "End of the Line," a man buys a little man in a cage, whom he treats with increasingly cruelty. In another writer's hands, this premise might zing into slide-whistles, but Bender is most interested in her characters and what they deeply want. Here, the little man wants to return to his little world, filled with grandparents and meals in Paris. His longing is particular while the big man's is crude; the little man has in his life "people who made him significant," which the big man both covets and loathes. When the little man asks the big man to stop his torment, please, Bender writes:
The big man didn't like the word please. He didn't like politesse and he didn't like people. Work had been dull and no one had noticed his new coat. He got himself a ticket to Paris...but soon realized he could not speak a word of the language and was too afraid of accidentally eating veal brains to go. He did not want to ask the little man to translate for him as he did not want to hear the little man's voice with an accent.
Focused on the nuances of yearning, Bender charges her odd premises with emotional intensity. In "The Leading Man," a boy born with keys for fingers spends his life looking for the locks that match, yet he can't unlock the mysteries of his father. Equally heartbreaking is the isolation of "Ironhead," the child born to pumpkin-headed parents. When the boy dies, his mother brings dishes of warm food "so she could release steam on his grave, because she wanted to give him voice, give him breath again."
Gracefully deadpan, Bender's writing draws our sympathy for characters of all shapes and substance, be they animal, vegetable, or appliance. Full of power, movement, and electricity, Bender's stories ascend -and take us with them.
As shaped by Kelly Link, STORY is a fairy tale porridge, perhaps a magic potion. Filled with cinnamon and leaves, fur and gold, whiskers and pajamas, Link's second collection, Magic For Beginners, is enchanting and highly potent. While some stories flow and puddle without resolution, each piece is complex and piquant. This is a collection best taken in sips.
Like Bender, Link follows her characters into extraordinary situations. In "The Faery Handbag," a grandmother carries her entire homeland inside her purse; in "The Great Divorce," a live husband tries to divorce his dead wife, since even with the help of a medium, they simply can't communicate. In any given story, the protagonist might be human, cat, ghost, or witch. Yet the mood of Magic For Beginners is playful, and you can feel Link's delight in every charm she uncovers.
In the title story, fifteen year-old Jeremy Mars is our lens on a fictional television show called The Library, and through him, we learn of the show's plots and characters in wonderful, intricate detail. This is a risky move in the compressed space of a short story: after all, who wants to read long digressions about a show you've never watched? Yet The Library is both entertaining to readers and useful to the story, and with it, Link generates character and conflict. Jeremy believes that a phone booth in the desert connects him to one of the show's doomed heroes-a TV character who answers his calls and guides him to illicit action. Fantasy and reality blur again when his father writes a novel about Jeremy, then kills off his main character-a betrayal that drives his mother to Nevada with Jeremy in tow. Yet for all these fantastic ingredients, "Magic For Beginners" is a simple story about Jeremy: a teenage boy who best connects with people through the safe distance of a television show, but who aches to close the gap.
Another family is the subject of "Stone Animals," a story selected by Michael Chabon (Kavalier and Clay) for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2005, and arguably the best in Link's collection. A brilliant exploration of possession(s), the story begins with the family touring a house for sale and asking, as a joke, if it is haunted. Through sharp dialogue, Link maintains a comic tone as she reveals the family's conflicts. Within days, the husband, Henry, spends nights away from the new house. His wife, Catherine, paints her anger into the walls, in wild colors- "Sangria, Peat Bog, Tulip, Tantrum, Planetarium"- and the children marvel at the thousands of rabbits tunneling the lawn, hiding objects, and growing monstrous in Henry's dreams. Suppressing their emotions in waking life, characters dream vividly. Here, in mix of Martha Stewart's Living and Alice in Wonderland, Catherine dreams of a tea party:
Liz and [Catherine] are drinking paint, thick and pale as cream. "Have some more paint," Catherine says. "Do you want sugar?"
"Yes, lots," Liz says. "What color are you going to paint the rabbits?"
Tensions rise as household items become "haunted: at first unfamiliar, then exiled, never welcomed back. A metaphor for displacement, the "haunted" toothbrushes and appliances seem trifling until the story's turning point, when one character is irrevocably dispossessed.
An unsettling story of unsettled characters, "Stone Animals" is grand and lengthy. Many pieces in Magic for Beginners span forty pages- giants compared to Bender's miniatures- yet they do not seem overlong. This is because Link is an exceptionally active writer: her stories overflow with dialogue, characters, humor, and action. This is the substance of ordinary life steeped in the delights and terrors of imagination- it is a medicinal brew. And with it, Kelly Link empowers us to examine what seems solid and safe. Inside your cat might be a witch. A child may dwell in a house under your house. Rabbits hoard treasures beneath your landscaping. Who knows what lies beneath our foundations?
Also unsettling is Judy Budnitz's second story collection, Nice Big American Baby. The author of a previous collection, Flying Leap, and the novel If I Told You Once, Budnitz inhabits the fantastic realm of Bender and Link. In Nice Big American Baby, we see equally outlandish premises: in "Where We Come From," a woman refuses to give birth for years, until she can safely cross the American border; in "Sales," a teenaged girl throws toast crusts into a pen of captured salesmen.
What distinguishes Budnitz's work is the tension, the dread, thrumming through her stories. Launched from their premises, her rockets shudder or veer suddenly toward our playgrounds. As their trajectories unfold, we worry: Where is this thing going? For Judy Budnitz, then, the substance of STORY is a current, a voltage- the hum of menace.
The clench begins with Budnitz's situations, which often involve caretaking, and this alone raises the stakes. In "Miracle," a white couple gives birth to a boy with unearthly black skin. The father, Jonas, cannot accept the child as his own, while mother Julia adores him, and the baby's origins create comic tension. But Jonas's suspicions make him monstrous. He forces himself on Julia:
"Let's see if we're capable of producing a normal baby. Don't you want to know?"
"No," she says. "No. Not like this."
Gabe is quiet in the nursery. Jonas pushes her down urgently, He's not rough; he's been much rougher in the past, when they played around at wrestling...But it scares her now. She goes limp, pictures a rabbit in a dog's mouth, carried so gently the teeth don't break the skin.
Chillingly, when Gabe vanishes and reappears as a white baby, Julia, forlorn, seeks her beloved black boy inside the strange new flesh: "If she could just lift up a bit of skin and see-"
The unknowable also bedevils the narrator of "Nadia," who obsesses over an ex-boyfriend's mail-order bride, until they meet at a river's edge. Likewise, "Visitors" features a series of phone calls from parents, lost in transit, who hint at fires, crashes, and baying dogs before the line goes dead.
In Budnitz's hands, even a piano becomes sinister, as we discover in the marvelous "Elephant and Boy." Here, a bereft elephant-keeper and a self-serving, wealthy widow enact the best and worst of caretaking. Overprotectiveness is likewise dangerous in the desert-island setting of "Motherland," the literary offspring of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World." Even in a world without male approval, Budnitz seems to say, women would find a way to invent it.
The collections of Judy Budnitz, Kelly Link, and Aimee Bender invigorate the possibilities of language. Daring and dangerous, their fictions shape new stories of human experience. This is truly the stuff of WONDER.
Rebecca Meacham is the author of the award-winning story collection Let's Do. She lives and teaches in Wisconsin.