Amy Hempel, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel (Scribner, 2006)
"I wish it never got any darker than this, the moment that you can no longer tell that grass is green."
"Amy Hempel is a master of the short story. This celebrated volume gathers together her complete work - four short collections of stunning stories about marriages, minor disasters, and moments of revelation.
With her inimitable compassion and wit, Hempel introduces characters who make choices that seem inevitable, and whose longings and misgivings evoke eternal human experience.
For readers who have known Hempel's work for decades and for those who are just discovering her, this indispensable volume contains all the stories in Reasons to Live, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Tumble Home, and The Dog of the Marriage. No reader of great writing should be without it. "
"Hempel's four collections of short fiction are all masterful; while readers await the follow-up to last year's acclaimed The Dog of the Marriage, this compendium restores the full set to print. The first of Hempel's books, Reasons to Live (1985), is justly celebrated by Rick Moody in his preface as a landmark of its era's "short-story renaissance"; it introduces Hempel's unmistakable tone, where a "besieged consciousness," Moody says, hones sentences to bladelike sharpness "to enact and defend survival." The second, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990), is the main reason to buy this book: used copies are scarce, and the collection contains stories like "The Harvest." Hempel's genius, whether in first or third person, is to make her characters' feelings completely integral to the scenes they inhabit; her terse descriptions become elegantly telegraphic-and telepathic-reportage, with not a word wasted and not a single fact embellished. Her great subject is the failure of human coupling, and she charts it at every stage: giddy beginnings, sexy thick-of-its, wan (or violent) outcomes, grim aftermaths. Seeing it laid out kaleidoscopically in this volume is an awesome thing indeed, and a pleasure lovers of the short story will not want to deny themselves." - Publishers Weekly
"Although Amy Hempel is little known outside the world of American fiction, she is deeply respected, even revered in her native US, as Rick Moody's effusive introduction to these collected stories indicates. Hempel, whose economic, oblique style of writing is most often compared to Raymond Carver, began to publish in the mid-1980s when short fiction, with Carver the doyen, was at its zenith. Following the millennial vogue for disproportionately long novels, the genre is reclaiming attention in a more self-consciously pared-down age. Hempel is, therefore, subject to some retrospective scrutiny.
In this volume, which comprises her four extant collections, dogs abound in almost every piece. And not simply dogs; animals here exist as catalysts, bystanders, protectors: "saints, guardian angels, my saviors, my friends".
Set mostly in the small beach towns around San Francisco, with its unique "eucalyptus fog", the voice in each tale – sometimes no more than a paragraph long – is generally that of a woman, sardonic, disaffected, lived in and lived through, often finding herself in blackly comic situations with neighbours, parents, in cars, and hospitals; always at the fag-end of a relationship. As one narrator comments: "I don't want to meet men. I know some already."
In "The Harvest", a woman involved in a horrific car accident is abandoned by the man she has been seeing for a week. "Do you think looks are important? I asked the man before he left. 'Not at first,' he said." Later the narrator explains in a coda that she has, in fact, exaggerated many of the circumstances of the piece. In what amounts to a sedulously neat masterclass in writing, this is a revision which amplifies, rather than detracts.
As Moody asserts, the brevity Hempel employs is almost Japanese, haiku-like in its precision. That is, until you get to "Tumble Down", the title story in Hempel's third collection, which at first glance is a ruminative letter from a woman hospitalised after a breakdown to a renowned artist she has met only once. In between the daily asides, oddball characters and petty humours of the institutionalised, we slowly learn of her grief at her mother's recent suicide.
In its length, pace and pathos, there is a semblance of an earlier, graver tradition of European writing. "I wish it never got any darker than this," she writes, "the moment that you can no longer tell that grass is green." In sleep she adopts the position her dead mother was found in, her anguish the more piercing because it is evident that theirs was a bitter relationship.
Hempel cleverly explores a similar ambiguity in two final stories – "The Uninvited", in which a childless woman approaching 50 suspects she might be pregnant as the result of a rape, and the erotic, exquisitely painful "Offertory". A relationship is ignited, then bleakly determined by the man insisting that the woman relate, each time they make love, the intimate details of her long-ago ménage à trois with a married couple. "Unimprovable," he says at the end. An adjective which – dogs notwithstanding – can be easily applied to the majority of these stories." - Catherine Taylor
"This could be a very short review. Read this book. But don't read it as I did. Please, not as I read it. All right: I guess I had better explain.
Book reviewers must have deadlines. Readers, luckily, do not. Amy Hempel's Collected Stories is made up of four slim volumes: Reasons to Live, published in 1985; At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, 1990; Tumble Home, 1997; and The Dog of the Marriage, 2005. More than 20 years to accumulate just over 400 pages: it's no wonder these stories, which often have the outward appearance of fragments, move with such contained power. They are eerie, unsettling, always original and perfectly expressed. Each one sets itself off like a depth charge in the reader's head. Each deserves time — quite a lot of time — to be allowed to do its work. Reading these stories one after the other — as I sometimes had to — carries two unfortunate risks. The first is that the stories, most of them narrated in the first person, may blur into one another — though in reality there is only a slight chance of this, so vivid and true is Hempel's voice. The second, graver, danger is that spending too long at a stretch in Hempel's disquieting atmosphere will give you what I can describe only as a case of the literary bends. Hempel's world is modern, set in a vivid present that only very occasionally feels historical. ("Him?" a character sneers. "The only book he ever read was the first chapter of 'Iacocca.' ") Yet the overall sense of this book is one of almost classical tragedy. Here, to be sure, is beauty, and pity, and fear.
Maybe I'm being too serious. Because Amy Hempel is funny, too, blackly funny, and her humor hits you right away. Her stories snap open: "The first three days are the worst, they say, but it's been two weeks, and I'm still waiting for those first three days to be over" —that's the start of "Du Jour," which at three pages is a fairly characteristic Hempel length. Her temporal universe is quite her own: "The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me" — there's the first sentence of "The Harvest." "Breathing Jesus" begins (of course): "Things turned around after I saw the Breathing Jesus." These opening sentences give you a feel for her work: Hempel's narrators are smart, damaged loners whose lives have a sense of being salvaged from a wreck. The humor is mordant, rather than what is commonly called redemptive; indeed, if you were to simply describe many of these stories, there would seem no hope of redemption anywhere. But hold on.
So first: how to describe them? The "events" of the stories aren't really the point; it's better to talk about Hempel's recurrent themes. Simple to start with death, the abiding presence of this book, particularly as it is the wellspring of the novella "Tumble Home," set within the walls of an asylum. "When I go to sleep, I sleep on the side of the bed my mother used to sleep on. Sometimes, at dawn, I wake up and find myself in the pose my mother died in — lying on her side, her arm reaching from under her head as though she were doing the sidestroke in a pool, the pills she had swallowed weighing her down like so many pebbles in her pockets." When you come to this passage, it will seem familiar; it appears too in "Tom-Rock Through the Eels," a glimpse of the narrator's life before she is confined. The cause of her confinement — you would not call this narrator mad — may be her mother's suicide, may be a failed relationship with an artist to whom she writes obsessively; the whole tale is addressed to "you." The locutions of one of her fellow inmates convey her spooky flair for language: "Warren says, when he is angry, that he's as mad as all outdoors. He says do I want to meet him after dinner and chew the rug? He says he can't always follow the threat of my conversation."
Mortality is everywhere here; "The Most Girl Part of You" might just be about two necking teenagers, Big Guy and the narrator — if it weren't for the nearly casual mention of Big Guy's mother's death. (When the necking happens, "we take the length of the couch, squirming like maggots in ashes.") Whose is the dead baby in "The Annex"? It's never quite clear. The annex itself is the annex to a cemetery; the narrator lives across the street; perhaps this is the same cemetery that is across the street in "The Uninvited," although the two stories originally appeared in different volumes. What use is "perhaps" to the reader? A great deal, in Hempel's case; it allows the reader room to move, to think, to feel.
The fear of human connection — especially the connection between mother and child — is another theme of Hempel's. "The only time the word baby doesn't scare me is the time that it should, when it is what a man calls me," says the narrator of "Tumble Home." That fear is a failure of empathy, a failure that haunts the powerful story "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried." This story is the very first one she ever wrote, which might give aspiring writers pause for thought. In it, a woman doesn't quite rise to the task of supporting a dying friend; it's as simple, as awful, as that. As the narrator of that story says: "What seems dangerous often is not — black snakes, for example, or clear-air turbulence. While things that just lie there, like this beach, are loaded with jeopardy." There it is again: the threat of Amy Hempel's conversation.
There are mudslides and earthquakes; the ground itself is unstable. In such a universe, where can hope — or the tricky business of redemption — be found? In "the clean way a dog enlists your heart," for one. The pure love (love of, love from) animals, and especially dogs, is a healing vein through this volume. The narrator of "The Dog of the Marriage" trains guide dogs: "I work with these dogs every day, and their capability, their decency, shames me." It's no wonder, with the kind of human beings found here; this book's closing story, "Offertory," is a freezing, burning tale of sexual obsession; the narrator's lover persuades her to tell stories of a past affair with a married couple. Hempel's plain, unexplicit language somehow conveys the madness of desire; and so, it is in just such a story — apparently harsh, seemingly cold — that Hempel's genius, and a kind of redemption, can really be found.
For here is the redemption of real art. You could call Hempel part of a movement in the trajectory of the American short story, and Rick Moody, in his intelligent introduction, places her alongside Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Ann Beattie and others — women writers who rise above what he sees as the "rage" and posturing of their male counterparts. But in the end such comparisons don't matter. Amy Hempel is herself. You read her stories and wonder, Why are they so wonderful? The answer comes to you at the very end of this volume, in a line toward the close of "Offertory." "Because a human being made this." That's all you need to know. Take it slowly. You'll see what I mean." - Erica Wagner
"In the unlikely event the literary community should ever decide to erect a Short Story Hall of Fame, there should be no argument that Amy Hempel's "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried" belongs in the inaugural class.
"Al Jolson" is a devastating work of fiction. Hempel's story of two friends, one terminal and hospital-bound, the other come to comfort her, is a model of economy. In fewer than 5,000 words, Hempel manages to develop a friendship and a situation that is as complex and real as anything that fiction can hope to produce. The characters don't even have names. There's just the woman in the hospital bed and the woman at the side of the hospital bed. Life and death are all that matters. Names are redundant.
At her dying friend's request, the woman who will live tells stories about ``useless stuff," in an effort to distract and amuse.
" `Did you know that when they taught the first chimp to talk, it lied? That when they asked her who did it on the desk, she signed back the name of the janitor. . . . But she was a mother, so I guess she had her reasons.'
`Oh, that's good,' she said. `A parable.'
`There's more about the chimp,' I said. `But it will break your heart.'
`No, thanks,' she says, and scratches at her mask. "
But, of course, there's no avoiding where this is going. The dying friend puts it best:
`You know,' she said, `I feel like hell. I'm about to stop having fun.' "
What follows is a betrayal of staggering proportions. The woman who will live is overcome by sorrow and compassion for her friend, but also by an utterly recognizable fear of death, of exposure to death, of catching death. So the healthy woman leaves, and her friend is left to die alone, and the living must continue to go on living.
In light of the greatness of "Al Jolson," then, it is perhaps inevitable that The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel - composed of her four collections - will come as something of a disappointment to readers familiar only with her masterpiece. It rises only occasionally to the heights of that early story, from Hempel's first book, Reasons to Live (1985). Perhaps most frustrating about this is the clear evidence throughout that Hempel's phrasing, her insights into the contradictions that make interesting characters, and above all her fine wit have continued to develop. As Rick Moody writes in the introduction, "It's all about the sentences." And that's the problem. While Hempel is an extraordinary stylist, she often shows a depressing disinterest in narrative.
Consider "Three Popes Walk Into a Bar," also from Reasons to Live, told from the point of view of a manager of a regional comedian, the type who does cheesy television advertisements and medium-size venues. The comedian is burdened with a dubious wife, a former topless dancer who wants him to quit performing and buy a boat. The comedian has decided to acquiesce. We follow the characters through the lead-up to what seems to be the comedian's final performance - and that's pretty much it. No one argues, no one is disagreeable, nothing unexpected happens. We don't even get to see the comedian do his act. More than that, the decision is never in doubt.
The next two collections in the volume, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom and Tumble Home, are shot through with similar flat notes, characters in search of stories. In "The Lady Will Have the Slug Louie," from Animal Kingdom, Hempel's nameless narrator considers, in succession, her dog's taste for beeswax candles, her brother's habit of feeding his boa constrictor mice dipped in vitamin powder, how as a child she spiced her brother's eggs with dirt, and a fairy-tale refrain about witches eating children.
This is an interesting train of thought, but more of an exercise than a fully formed fiction. Without the guiding wire of a setting, or an event, or a time, or any kind of narrative marker at all, the point of view floats in space, and finally drifts off.
No story suffers more from this lack of underpinning than the title novella of Tumble Home. Told in the form of a very long, somewhat flirtatious letter, sent from a woman in a remarkably casual-seeming mental institution, Tumble Home is checkered with brilliant asides and sharp dialogue. It is also stultifying. There is no sense that any of the inhabitants of the institution is particularly eager to leave. There's no sense, in fact, that they want much of anything. A sense of time, let alone a sense of urgency, is non existent.
Fans of Hempel would probably argue that I've missed the subtlety in much of her fiction, and they may be right. What one reader sees as chiseled and pared down to raw emotion, another reader - this one, say - sees as the literary equivalent of a person who has recently undergone gastric bypass surgery. The fat is gone, but the body is draped with unseemly bags of skin. Where does the skin give way to bone? Too often, I just can't tell.
Still, the patience of those who find their way to her latest collection, The Dog of the Marriage, will be rewarded. Here, Hempel has come almost all the way back to the balance of character and story that made "Al Jolson" so affecting. In "Beach Town" a voyeur observes the disintegration of his neighbors' marriage with unnerving detachment. In "Reference #388475848-5" a letter of complaint digresses into a protest against everything from pushy car dealers to rude moviegoers. Best of all is "Offertory," in which the letter-writer of Tumble Home has fallen into a kinky affair with the older painter who was the object of her affection in the earlier story. While the approach is reminiscent of "Al Jolson," the concerns are stranger and sexier, raising expectations for whatever Hempel has in store for us next. These may be the collected stories, but here's betting the best is yet to come." - Owen King
Read also Dan Schneider's review:
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