Amy Hempel is dangerous. I thought this when I read her first book of stories, and I think it now that I’ve read her latest (her fourth). Hypnotic stylists are dangerous, dangerous like Denis Johnson and Lydia Davis and Lorrie Moore and Grace Paley and Donald Barthelme and Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, etc. etc. Writers who read a Hempel paragraph think, “Wow, I want to do this.” Writers who finish a Hempel story think, “Hey, I can do this.” Hempel is a seductive stylist; she makes it look easy. Read “The Afterlife,” one of her new stories, and you’ll feel the story gradually build by simple suggestion and bold detail until you reach the end and think, “Whoa, that was pretty sweet,” and you’ll flip back over the pages and cry out, “Six pages? This thing was only six pages? How’d she do that?” The emotional effect is out of proportion to the simplicity of the language and the brevity of the story. The sum is greater than its parts. The trick, of course, is finding the right parts.
And Hempel’s parts are deceptive. Simple words, short sentences, a lot left out. Hempel, like an accomplished artist sketching a landscape, can find just the right mix of detail and drama to enable the reader to imagine the rest. She trusts the reader to imagine. This is exhilirating for the reader. The reader is allowed—no, invited—to imagine! Unlike so many writers who exhaust a story’s possibilities, accreting every possible detail to its mountain of exposition, Hempel sketches a selection of shadow and light and gray area that suggest not the entire mountain per se but only that perspective on it that she believes is important. Hers is an idiosyncratic view of the mountain. She seems to understand that thousands of writers before her have written about similar characters and similar plots.
“Let’s agree,” she seems to say to the reader, “not to do all that again, shall we?”
And that is part of her allure. Her narrators speak to us from within their little narrative worlds. Her narrators do not often take the outside-looking-in perspective on their own lives. They are not compelled to divulge biographical minutia. They do not try to shine a light into every cranny, confess every sin, or talk about all that David Copperfield kind of crap (see Salinger; see also, for counterpoint, the recent explosion of women authors writing multigenerational novels; Hempel intensifies experience into art rather than heaps up information into fictional history). Hempel’s stories treat us to the illusion that we are eavesdropping on these narrators, that we are somehow privileged to that auditory limbo in which the narrators are half-thinking these thoughts and half-speaking them out loud to themselves. I think Hempel achieves this effect by nimble use of that private poetry in which we speak to ourselves combined with the embrace of the banal details of our lives which are often where we can’t help but indirectly worry over what’s really bugging us. Our emotions are messy and complex and subjective, and they spill over and affect how we perceive the states of our gardens and our homes, how we relate to our dogs and cats and horses, and how we talk to our lovers in bed. And this spilling over and running through is what Hempel’s narrators can’t help but do. They speak to us from within this roiling up of feeling, controlling it by talking about it. They make order, if not sense, by finding language to fit it into.
These stories are not grandly emotional in the way one might presume from the often breathless praise that Hempel gets (on the latest jacket: “Amy Hempel is my god among writers,” Chuck Palahniuk). It’s not like you’re going to cry or anything. (The one Hempel story that might make you cry is “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” from her book Reasons to Live; I’ve never forgotten that story). Instead, their strength relies on establishing conflicts of the heart and churning them to the surface (indirectly, restlessly, ambivalently) with lyrical prose.
In this collection, a few stories clunk at the end with transparent analogies or bold thematic declarations, as if the narrator is saying, “Okay, now that we’re at the end, THIS is what I mean.” Yeah, I get it. It’s one of the postmodern legacies (technically, an inheritance from modernism) that the narrator, too, is conscious of her life as a story, conscious of the necessity of wringing meaning from her own life in order to understand her situation and move on, and, most importantly, conscious of the artificiality, if not also the futility, of the enterprise. Despite/because of the limitations of Time and Mortality, Art and Humanity, these narrators, like the author, tend to fear being misinterpreted, being misunderstood, and maybe this explains the thematically declarative way many of Hempel’s stories end (it’s this fear of being misinterpreted that drives other authors to write exhaustively about their subjects; it’s very nearly a fear of uncertainty, of powerlessness, a fear, essentially, of the reader). And yet other stories rely on this same technique and they work wonderfully (I’m thinking, again, of “The Afterlife,” among others in this collection, as well as many stories from her previous collections). This is one of those literary techniques so easily picked up by writers and so dangerously deployed. I’m sure I’m guilty of several counts of it myself. It’s the Emulation Temptation. If it works for Hempel, why shouldn’t it work for me? Yes, well. Let’s agree not to do it again, shall we?
The Dog of the Marriage is very much in keeping with Hempel’s previous books, so much so that you can buy all of Hempel’s books and read them as one nearly seamless collection of stories. She has remained so stylistically consistent over the years that I’m tempted to blame her loyalty to Gordon Lish for her lack of exploration (even this collection is dedicated “For Gordon”). It appears she’s found something that works and she’s sticking with it. What has always seemed tempting about her work, given its consistency, is to insert the author’s identity into the gaps in her narratives, and this collection is nearly painful in its inviting of this conceit. You can finish the book and realize that all along you’ve assumed it’s been Hempel herself speaking, like an actor, from within the thinly veiled autobiographical characters she’s created. There is virtue in this strategy, at least when its pursuit is artistically honest, as it seems to be for Hempel in that, from her first to last book of stories, you can sense this dynamic at work. But there is, again, that danger, to which even Hempel seems to succumb now and then (I’m thinking of, in this collection, “Beach Town,” “What Were the White Things?,” and “Memoir”). It is the danger of thinking art IS easy because a style SEEMS easy to emulate. The consequence for the aspiring writer is to think,
“Oh, wow, all I have to do to write a story is type in the aphorisms and dialogue snippets and bad puns from my notebooks and, voila, fiction!” Ooh, sorry. But no.
Now, I don’t mean that writers should be looking to Hempel’s book for lessons or, heaven forbid, that Hempel intends lessons to be got by her readers who might also be writers. Nevertheless, one lesson to be learned, if writers are looking for one from Hempel’s book, is to beg your publisher to find someone other than William Wegman (whose Weimaraners wear pilgrim outfits on PBS) to take your cover photograph. The Dog of the Marriage = a photo of a Dog and a Woman. Literal enough for you? Ug.