A Close Read

What makes good writing good

By Christina Schwarz

"The woman he met. He met a woman. This woman was the woman he met. She was not the woman he expected to meet or planned to meet or had carved into his head in full dress with a particular nose and eyes and lips and a very particular brain. No, this was a different woman, the one he met. When he met her he could hardly stand her because she did not fit the shape in his brain of the woman he had planned so vigorously and extensively to meet. And the non-fit was uncomfortable and made his brain hurt." —from "The Meeting," in Willful Creatures: Stories, by Aimee Bender (Doubleday)

Bender plays with her prose. Throughout this story collection she arranges words in unconventional combinations, uses rhyme, chops some sentences off at a single word—"Oven." "But." "Wet"—and lets others run on, all of which have the effect of giving her writing a life of its own, seemingly unfettered by a controlling author. But these techniques also call attention to the words, emphasizing the distance between language and the ideas it's meant to convey. Bender never pretends that stories capture the real world on the page; instead she creates her own world somewhere between the familiar and the absurd. The first sentence here, for instance, seems to turn inside out and back again in the two that follow, so that together they skirt the edge of nonsense. These lines express the unreasonable tenaciousness of "the woman"; at the same time, like a nursery rhyme, they're just plain fun to read. A charming lack of sophistication characterizes the whole passage. "Could hardly stand her" and "made his brain hurt" are phrases a child might use. Of the seven sentences four employ "was," which in most cases would be a deadly degree of inactivity but here works as another bit of ingenuousness. Most effective in producing this tone is the repetition of "met" and "meet," a steady beat that makes the passage read like a piece of light poetry. The subjects in this surreal story collection include potato children, a man tiny enough to use a bottle cap as a tray, a boy with fingers shaped like keys, and one with an iron for a head (born to parents with pumpkin heads). Prose so animated it seems almost capable of writing itself is only fitting.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/10/a-close-read/304255/