Aimee Bender’s bracing first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, spent an anxious, mordant season with an OCD-afflicted math teacher who’s also a chronic quitter, a state of world denial perhaps inherited from her father, laid up all her life with a never defined illness that traps him in a limbo of existential deferral. In the 15 stories that make up Willful Creatures, Bender again enumerates the comforts and perils of emotional tunnel vision and compulsive private games, but she leans much harder on the airy humor and intimations of the grotesque that daubed her novel. Like her first, pre-Invisible Sign story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, this new suite scans like a tidy notebook of sketches and jottings toward something bigger—a portfolio of exercises by a straight-A student.
With their once-upon-a-time hermeticism and broad sampler of mutant children, the new stories strive for the dark whimsy of certain nursery rhymes or a Grimm fairy tale: A family of pumpkinheads welcomes a tragic ironhead baby; a boy is born with keylike fingers; a solitary woman involuntarily adopts a litter of potato children; a lonely bachelor purchases a miniature man whom he keeps in a cage. Lightly freckled with Gogol and goth, many an entry becomes subsumed by its own premise, be it a glib pun (the protagonist of “Motherfucker” explains, “I fuck mothers . . . [a]nd I do it well”) or a setup to a gallows-humor joke (first line of first story: “Ten men go to ten doctors”), with occasional strange bursts of a Mametian logorrhea (opening to “The Meeting”: “The woman he met. He met a woman. This woman was the woman he met”). An occasionally inspired palate cleanser, Willful Creatures is lightest on its feet when it resists sentimentalizing its freaks and geeks: Bender moves most gracefully among them when her eyes are dry.