The boy was born with fingers shaped like keys." So starts "The Leading Man," one of the 15 wryly off-kilter stories in Willful Creatures, a new collection from Aimee Bender, author of 1998's The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. A boy with door keys for fingers? Bender also presents a man who keeps a miniature human as a pet, two pumpkinheads (yes, they have pumpkins for heads) who get married and give birth to an ironhead (as in, you could press your clothes with his cranium), and, in "Fruit and Words," a woman who peddles fruit and, literally, words.
Words are Bender's specialty. Whimsy can get tiresome, but Bender keeps it fresh by twisting language to bring alive her characters' undeniably human longings. It isn't always pretty—the man with the miniman pet is the least of her frequently cruel, and often stunningly lonely, characters. But it is all beautifully told, studded with eye-popping details. The brazen narrator of the story "Off" describes her metallic dress: "It has this slinky way of falling all over my hips and I feel like an on faucet in it." Sometimes things get too punchy, like a guy who rushes a woman off the phone by claiming that he has to write a grad-school paper about "the relationship between sadness, mime, and Ping-Pong"—a line that feels too typically like bad Ph.D. humor. But when she doesn't go overboard, Bender is funny and astonishingly perceptive, especially when it comes to human emotions—even when the human happens to have a pumpkin atop his neck.