In a review of Aimee Bender's Willful Creatures, CL Bledsoe concludes that "Bender is that most daring of writers, who will take any risk, regardless of the consequences." I couldn't disagree more. I've read The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures, and I don't think she takes any risks at all. Her stories display only a kind of surrealistic whimsy that I, for one, find mostly cloying.
Take, for example, "Ironhead," a story from Willful Creatures that Bledsoe singles out for discussion, claiming it is a story in which Bender "portray[s] even the oddest characters not simply as running gags, but with emotional depth." It is hard for me to find the "emotional depth" in passages like this, which to the contrary exhibit only a cartoon-like sentimentality: "The ironhead turned out to be a very gentle boy. He played quietly on the his own in the daytime with clay and dirt, and contrary to expectations, he preferred wearing ragged messy clothes with wrinkles. His mother tried once to smooth down his outfits with her own, separated iron, but when the child saw what was his head, standing by itself, with steam exhaling from the flat silver base just like his breath, he shrieked a tinny scream and matching steam streamed from his chin as it did when he was particularly upset. The pumpkinhead mother quickly put the iron away; she understood; she imagined it was much the way she felt when one of her humanhead friends offered her a piece of seaonal pie on Thanksgiving." This is as much "emotional" portrayal of these characters as we get; the rest of the story continues to wring equally asinine changes on an already dopy idea. Once we've registered the unbeguiling notion that a boy has been born with an iron for a head, the story has little to offer. It continues to rely on faux-naive phrasing ("a very gently boy," "played quietly") and an altogther formulaic plot--the iron-headed boy dies, of course, leaving everyone very sad. I suppose one could characterize the story as a "running gag," but then the gag would need to be funny in the first place.
Or take "The End of the Line," in which a "big man" goes to a pet store "to buy himself a little man to keep him company." Nothing in this story (Bledsoe calls it a "surreal parable") is other than predictable and smarmy, once one allows for its tepidly surrealistic premise. "After about the third week. . .the big man took to torturing the little man." The little man contemplates his escape but is unable to accomplish it. The big man sets the little man free, but decides to follow the little man as he drives away in a "small blue bus"--he "just wanted to see where they lived." A (literally) little girl looks up at the "giant" who has found them and wonders at the "size of the pity that kept unbuckling in her heart."
For a "parable" like this to work, in my opinion, it either has to implicitly examine the structural and thematic assumptions of the parable itself (in the process reconfiguring the possibilities of the form) or it has to manifest some stylistic vigor to compensate for the formulaic nature of parables and fables. Kafka, Borges, Calvino, and Barthleme, for example, are writers able to carry out such tasks, but Bender's stories do neither. Plot exists to reveal the mawkishly cute characters and situations (cute even in their occasional freakishness), but is otherwise so conventional as to be simply perfunctory. And her style is even less interesting, usually just an excuse to "shock" the reader with a seemingly outlandish situation that is really just silly:
The motherfucker arrived at the West Coast from the Midwest. He took a train, and met women of every size and shape in different cities--Tina with the straight-ahead knees in Milwaukee, Annie with the caustic laugh in Chicage, Betsy's lopsided cleavage in Bismark, crazy Heddie in Butte, that lion tamer in Vegas, the smart farm girl from Bakersfield. Finally, he dismounted for good at Union Station in Lost Angeles.
"I fuck mothers," he said to anyone who asked him. "And I do it well."
One could imagine a writer like, say, Stanley Elkin, taking this set-up and running with it, transforming it through his inimitable style and comic imagination into an extended fiction full of narrative ingenuity and aesthetic delight. But in Bender's rendering it becomes an utterly straight-faced account of a man with a quaintly unconventional sexual proclivity who is given to such statements as "Desire is a house. Desire needs closed space. Desire runs out of doors or windows, or slats or pinpricks, it can't fit under the sky, too large."
I do not mean to single out CL Bledsoe's review for criticism. It has become common for reviewers to identify Bender as a risk-taker, her fiction as an example of what passes for "innovative" writing among the graduates of the better MFA programs. (Bledsoe even comes close to accurately describing Bender's fiction when she calls it "like a rich dessert," except that, for me at least, it is more like sugar overload.) But calling such work innovative or experimental simply because it distorts ordinary reality in some fairy tale-ish sort of way doesn't really do the cause of experimental fiction much good. Experimental fiction challenges the formal constraints imposed by past practices; it does not seek out alternative methods in order, finally, to just tell the same old stories in only superficially different ways. Bender's fiction accepts those constraints and relates decidedly familiar stories dressed up in gaudy but cheap disguises.