This is Mary Stein’s critical thesis, hot of the press, as she says. It’s part critical essay, part personal essay, one writer’s adventure in the art of reading as much as an exploration of the technique of absence in Amy Hempel’s stories. Would that all readers could be as curious, open, intelligent and humble. Would that we could all have such readers.
This essay was really selfishly motivated––I was basically just trying to figure out why I had been so obsessed with Amy Hempel, and now I have a 30-page half-answer to that question. I also like to think I belong to the “reality” camp, and while writing this, it was clear the essay experienced a crisis of identity, and I had resigned myself to a mildewy fate in the basement in College Hall. More than anything, I just wanted to figure out a thing or two about artful craft and about my own creative process…
Another Way to Fill an Empty Room: The Voice of Amy Hempel’s Aesthetic
By Mary Stein
“Here’s a trick I found for how to finally get some sleep. I sleep in my husband’s bed. That way the empty bed I look at is my own.”
(“Nashville Gone to Ashes,” 20)
One may not notice the loneliness of an empty room until you place a small desk and chair in its corner.
Amy Hempel’s words are the desk and chair that sit in the corner of an empty room.
It is no secret that Hempel’s stories rely heavily on aesthetics. For Hempel, construction is of utmost importance: She intends her stories to start from and arrive at a particular destination, approaching each story with knowledge of its final line. In her stories, what is not present becomes just as important––if not more important––as that which shows up on the page.
Return for a moment to the image of a room sparsely populated with furniture: In the emptiness of a room, a reader may view herself in relationship to the space that surrounds her. (I called the room “lonely,” whereas the narrator of Doris Lessing’s story, “To Room Nineteen,” may have called it “salvation”). If that same room is filled with objects and people and pictures and doors to other rooms, a reader will be more likely to view all these objects in relationship to one another. Regardless, the role of the reader in relationship to a story is clearly important as it is with any text. We are entering some Bertolt Brecht territory of the relationship between the roles of the audience (readership) and the art (text)––how a reader becomes an inextricable part of what she observes, diminishing the possibility of pure objectivity. Of course, we don’t read stories in hopes of objectivity. But the risk of using economic prose to write narratives as spacious as Hempel’s is that these stories will more likely foster speculation: There is literally more room for a reader to project his or her own interpretive slant on a story.
In his introduction to Hempel’s The Collected Stories, Rick Moody writes: “For the first time, Hempel turns her attention toward carnality, toward sexuality itself, and since the excisions, the margins, in Hempel stories have often been as telling as what occurs within, it must have required significant resolve on her part to allow her characters, for the first time, to take off their clothes” (xiv). He refers to Hempel’s story, Offertory, as “being one of the most erotic stories in contemporary literature” (xvi). Moody continues, assessing “the delicate first-person speaker of Hempel’s later efforts” (the female narrator of Offertory) in relationship to a “carnally voracious lover,” who is the object of the narrator’s same first-person epistle in Tumble Home. At the very least, I find the focus of Moody’s assessment adrift from the complexity of Hempel’s narratives. Regardless, Moody’s introduction exemplifies the danger of Hempel’s aesthetic––the risk that a reader will create his own emphasis and project his own need for particular meaning.
But Hempel’s spaces do encourage empathy from readers as they navigate her narrators’ storytelling. “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” was Hempel’s first attempt at writing a story (how is that for humbling?). She wrote it as an undergraduate student under the mentorship of Gordon Lish. Though I don’t give Lish credit for Hempel’s talent, I do give him credit for having asked the right question in his workshop: What is the thing that would dismantle your sense of yourself? (Welch). “Cemetery” was Hempel’s first response to this question and her following works continued to explore this question––writing moments in characters’ lives that dismantle their sense of self.
Hempel writes a kind of narrator who sleeps in her deceased husband’s bed so the empty bed she looks at is her own. She writes characters examine themselves from different angles. But instead of dramatic plot movement, what shifts is the manner in which characters and narrators view themselves in relationship to the context of their story––how they see themselves in the empty room. To follow this subtle interior trajectory demands a close and sometimes empathetic read.
Before reading Amy Hempel, I had never really read much of anything. I started reading her stories as a somewhat-prolific-yet-novice reader when I encountered her story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” as a leisurely read. Quite frankly, my first reading left me puzzled. I had been accustomed to reading literature that was more dramatically overt. It didn’t much matter whether the books were the fantasy novels of my adolescence, the nineteenth-century American literature of my college years, or the Russian tomes that anchored my attention through post-graduate years. It was Hempel who later refocused the lens through which I read stories: Not only did Hempel’s stories demand a close read of the text, but her stories also demanded I look closer at myself in relationship to Hempel’s method of storytelling. Her characters weren’t telling or overtly showing me how to feel or what to think. Often, they weren’t telling me what they were feeling or thinking. Something about Hempel’s writing resonated on a deeper level: Her stories inhabited me in a way I had not experienced before. They probed that soft palpable fissure––the fault line between consciousness and unconsciousness––until it ruptured to expose a bare expression of humanity. The narrative restraint in Hempel’s work provided room for her stories to reverberate with the same question Lish posed to Hempel: What is it that dismantles your sense of yourself?
Amy Hempel taught me how to read.
I want to look closely at Hempel’s literary aesthetic in respect to dramatic restraint and negative narrative space: I want to explore moments her narrators dismantle their sense of self and situations where an over-groomed aesthetic threatens emotional homogeny. I want to examine how a narrator’s manner of storytelling is just as important as the story itself. I want to roam Hempel’s almost-empty rooms, and leave them to explore the spaces of my own interests and obsessions––spaces that are my own and of my own creation.
“I often feel the effects of people only after they leave me.”
(“Tumble Home,” 253)
Different answers to Lish’s question echo throughout Hempel’s collected works: Though Hempel’s stories highlight moments in characters’ lives that dismantle their sense of self, they rarely take place at, or overtly mention, the epicenter of these life-altering events. Rather, Hempel creates characters and narrators that testify to how people exist in the aftershock of these events. It’s appropriate that Hempel uses earthquakes as one resonating theme in her first collection of stories, Reasons to Live––a collection of stories that begins to outline the interior landscape of characters.
Last year, a resident I worked with committed suicide during my shift. When I found her dead in her room, I didn’t know whether to refer to her as a body or as a woman over the phone to the paramedics. This is not a story I speak about with any amount of detail. But those who are closest to me know how this impacted me. They may notice I am hesitant when I go upstairs to check residents’ rooms, they may notice that I avoid that leg of the hallway, or that when I had later entered her emptied room, its vacancy left me paralyzed. I use this personal example because it demonstrates that stories can be sufficiently revealed in the aftermath of traumatic events. What is trauma in real lives becomes drama in the context of fiction. This is not to minimize the gravity of traumatic experiences: But it is important to remember that drama in fiction––no matter how closely it depicts an emotional truth––functions ultimately as a creation of the author in service to her fiction. How does trauma manifest itself in our lives one or ten years later when we wake up and goes downstairs to fix coffee? How does it impact or inform current relationships? How does it influence what we might think about while we brush our teeth? What does it look like when traumatic memories remain dormant? What happens if and when these memories bubble to the surface of our consciousness? What happens if they never do? These are the moments Hempel portrays in her collection.
Hempel establishes dramatic proximity through the aesthetic of narrative restraint. Hempel’s stories are embedded in the interior lives of her characters––exploring moments when their sense of self is dismantled without relying on plot events to show her reader how the character arrived to that point of periphery. Hempel essentially drops her reader into the middle of the conversation, using aesthetic to create dramatic proximity between the narrator and plot events.
Hempel’s narratives carefully navigate latent minefields of drama, always hinting at the promise of explosion, but rarely relying on words or scenes of detonation––words or scenes that directly convey a story’s dramatic subject: “The doctor told me the meaning of what we looked at on the film. He asked me if I understood what he said. I said yes. I said yes, and that I wanted to ask one question: What were the white things?” (345). In these penultimate lines of “What Were the White Things,” the narrator distracts the reader (and his or her self) from the diagnosis by posing a question that simultaneously relates to the present story-moment, previous plot events and backstory. Very little action occurs in the story and the narrator’s summary of plot events is tellingly vague: “I arrived at the lecture on my way to someplace else, an appointment with a doctor my doctor had arranged. Two days before, she was telling me his name and address and I have to say, I stopped listening, even though––or because––it was important” (343). This line favors the drama of the narrator’s interior over details of plot events. The narrator emphasizes the search for meaning rather than meaning itself; the narrator’s restraint reveals her interiority. The reader only knows that the narrator had attended an art lecture (fittingly titled, “Finding the Mystery in Clarity”) to avoid an appointment with a radiologist. The narrator, never assigned even rudimentary details such as a name or gender, obscures concrete or revealing details; what the doctor said, its meaning, and––just what were the white things? But these omissions become crucial in establishing narrative voice.
Many of Hempel’s stories are rife with omission, developing scenes in relationship to a character’s interior. On the infrequent occasion Hempel’s narrators reveal concrete physical details, it pertains to how she defines herself in that story moment. In “Sportsman,” Jack’s interior is reflected through details of scene: “Jack had offered to take them out to dinner, but the doctor wanted to barbecue, so Jack stopped at a market and bought three big steaks on the way. It was too soon for even Vicki to try to fix him up is what he told himself when he considered buying four” (210). The emotional impact of Jack’s divorce is buffered by the nature of this errand and the manner in which Jack deflects what little emotional response he threatens to convey. In “Today Will Be a Quiet Day”––where a conscientious father desires to connect with his children after his son’s friend committed suicide year earlier––the dramatic event occupies only 4.3% of the story’s verbiage. In some of Hempel’s later stories, dramatic events take up more space on the page, but even then, an overarching use of narrative restraint suggests characters brace themselves against the emotional impact of these dramatic event.
Each detail is a conscientious reflection of a character’s interior. The poetic attention of Hempel’s prose unravels narrative identity, leading readers to understand transformation as characters themselves experience it. Hempel’s characters constantly refigure themselves in relationship to the mundane world around them. Hempel constructs narratives to convey that how anarrator reveals his or her story reflects how a dramatic moment has informed his or her idea of self.
This is how we talk when we talk about trauma.
My experience of finding the resident in her room shifted between reliving, rethinking and analyzing the experience. I thought often about finding my resident, but far more often I tried not to think about it. Hempel captures the aesthetic of avoidance––an aesthetic that navigates the dramatic periphery in a manner that reflects my relationship to and understanding of how we feel the impact of traumatic events long after they have occurred.
“I said, ‘The answer to your question is: Precision.’ …
‘Look at that,’ he said. ‘The single word that brings an inquisition to an end.’”
In large, the precision of Hempel’s prose compensates for the wandering and somewhat abstract nature in which characters explore their interior landscape. Hempel’s prose moves readers through the narratives quickly: Besides “Tumble Home,” Hempel’s maverick novella, and three other stories that flirt with twenty to thirty pages, Hempel’s stories range in length from one sentence to eleven printed pages. The first lines of Hempel’s stories often launch the reader into the narrative, establishing the aesthetic of voice.
“The Harvest,” begins: “The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me” (103). The narrator minimizes the impact of the dramatic event in the first sentence. She begins the story with an irrelevant detail to mark the year she almost died, deemphasizing the gravity of the accident itself. The narrator tempers its emotional impact with use of multiple qualifiers: she barely knows the man who nearly accidentally killed her. The narrator’s humor also offsets the gravity of events. Her near-death experience is not a moment of transcendence, but is depicted as one event awash with other more pedestrian occurrences. This aesthetic establishes the narrator’s emotional distance, drawing attention away from the event itself and emphasizing the narrator’s interior state.
The narrator’s inability to directly address the accident, her implicit denial, suggests she’s coping with the traumatic event she refers to. The story continues along the trajectory of its opening, highlighting how the narrator relays the story rather than the story itself: “I leave a lot out when I tell the truth. The same when I write a story. I’m going to start now to tell you what I left out of ‘The Harvest,’ and maybe begin to wonder why I had to leave it out” (106). As the narrator continues to retell the story, she is careful to reveal details of the accident only as they relate to her interiority: “In the emergency room, what happened to one of my legs required not four hundred stitches but just over three hundred stitches. I exaggerated even before I began to exaggerate, because it’s true––nothing is ever quite as bad as it could be” (107). The narrator’s distance is anchored in the first sentence and reverberates through the ambiguity of her retelling. The narrator downplays information about the accident itself, revealing layers of a complex interior through the act storytelling––the reader comes to understand the narrator in step with the narrator, herself.
Hempel repeats this method of story openings multiple times. The narrator in “The Center,” begins: “For the price of a cup of coffee a day, my friend Deborah adopted a child,” and in “Church Cancels Cow”: “Pheasant feathers in a plastic jack-o’-lantern––this is the way people decorate graves in October across from my house” (177, 201). The first sentences of these stories establish narrative detachment. The tension that exists within sentence and story structure compensates for the absence of dramatic propulsion. Hempel’s aesthetic is crucial. Because her threadbare plot structures inhibit narrative movement, her sentences and story structure must be all the more combustible.
With Hempel’s economic prose, it’s no wonder her stories often echo with poetic resonance. This is a component of aesthetic that fortifies Hempel’s use of negative narrative space. Its spare form reflects its very function, using an incisive aesthetic to illuminate interior.
In a 2008 interview with Rob Hart, Hempel stated she will “try to get [a short-short] as close to a poem as [she] can.” But I hazard to speculate that Hempel’s longer pieces echo this same poetic sensibility. Though I believe most of Hempel’s stories have a conscientiousness similar to poetry, her longer pieces offer more room for the poetry of her language to emerge. Consider the following passage from “Tumble Home,” Hempel’s longest piece in her collected works:
The pond is surrounded by winter-stripped trees, packed so close together the lack of leaves doesn’t matter. There is no seeing through them to the single man and woman who proceed across the cracked black ice on borrowed skates. No crack of the puck. No Rock ‘n’ Skate, no Rap ‘n’ Skate, no programmed medleys threatening disco. The sound of speed on blades. Turtles float below. We are humming “The Nutcracker Suite.”
My consolations are many, their power no less for not including you. I said to a psychic just after our tea, “There is a person I met,” and the psychic cut me off, saying, “He is a thief. He will steal your soul.” (267-8)
This is a moment in Hempel’s story that demands a close read. The phrasing and sonics of these two paragraphs are particularly poetic. In order to emphasize the poetic resonance in her writing, I took the liberty to manipulate the text into poetic form with the help of poet and VCFA graduate, Martin Balgach:
The pond is surrounded
by winter-stripped trees,
packed so close together
the lack of leaves doesn’t matter.
There is no seeing through them
to the single man and woman
who proceed across the cracked black ice
on borrowed skates.
No crack of the puck.
No Rock ‘n’ Skate, no Rap ‘n’ Skate,
no programmed medleys threatening disco.
The sound of speed on blades.
Turtles float below.
We are humming “The Nutcracker Suite.”
My consolations are many,
their power no less for not including you.
I said to a psychic just after our tea,
“There is a person I met,”
and the psychic cut me off, saying,
“He is a thief.
He will steal your soul.”
Restructuring paragraphs into poetic format emphasizes the dramatic impact of the narrator’s interior, magnifying the importance of each word and phrase. The rhythm of sonics and repetition propels Hempel’s prose––the winter-stripped trees, the lack of leaves, the cracked black ice and the repetition of No. Solitude is emphasized: The narrator speaks in terms of absence; the lack of leaves, sounds they don’t hear. Balgach uses line breaks after the third stanza to isolate a series of phrases (sentences), slowing Hempel’s prose to further emphasize solitude. In the second stanza, the narrator distances herself from the direct experience of the memory by referring to herself in the third person. But Hempel contradicts this detachment by shifting to present tense (until the last stanza) which suggests immediacy and the narrator’s clarity of memory. The contradictory effects of shifting to present tense and to a third person point of view creates tension; the narrator is simultaneously grounded in and detached from this memory of ice skating.
Read as a poem, these paragraphs are exposed as story-organisms that could exist alone if presented in an alternative form––tidy paragraphs wrought with completion. But Hempel’s stories don’t employ poetics for the sake of waxing poetic: The text conveys the story while the aesthetic of prose reveals the narrator’s conflicted interior in relationship to scene. In the final stanza, when the prose returns to a first person narrative in past tense (how the majority of the novella is written), the narrator has surfaced to a new understanding of this memory and of herself.
Hempel’s prose can’t stand still, and nor should it. “Tumble Home” is not the only story that conveys a poetic interior. In “Beach Town,” Hempel writes sentences that end with a preposition to spare the reader a longer transition through scene. It’s the difference between Hempel’s: “The day I heard the voice of a woman not the wife, I went out back to a spot more heavily planted but with a break I could just see through” (305). And: “I went out back to a spot more heavily planted but with a break I could just see through the day I heard the voice of a woman not the wife.” Ending with through leads the reader directly toward what we don’t already know––the logistics of scene. In my less worthy reconstruction, the sentence ends on a self-revealed detail which arrests movement or curiosity. Ending with a preposition sustains the momentum of the scene in a similar way a poem might move into another line or stanza.
Again the narrator speaks in terms of absence. The woman in the backyard is not the other woman or even another woman; instead she is defined by who she is not: “a woman not the wife.” This absence establishes the narrator’s attention to the neighbor’s wife––the idea of the wife present during a scene that excludes her. Focusing on the neighbor’s wife mitigates the dramatic impact of the scene. This is another way narrative space crafts dramatic periphery. In “The Afterlife,” Hempel uses absence to convey the extent of the narrator’s fear: “I got to stay in the car and drink Tab after a rock I picked up freed something I still have dreams about” (370). The thing she frees doesn’t matter, only that it has impacted her enough to dream about it to this day. Hempel’s restraint is an expression of obsession; absences that explore fear and fixation––traversing the interior terrain of her narrators.Because the aesthetic of Hempel’s prose conveys interiority, her short form––sparse sentences, quipping paragraphs and resonant digressions––becomes a style of necessity. Hempel’s narrators manage to fixate on the stories they can’t bring themselves to tell directly.
Since starting this essay, I have written a story about an earlier experience I had of coming across a body lying in the middle of the street by a broken-down car. My story frames the situation in terms of narrative absence: “At first, when you drive at night your headlights will cast a sideways glance so that every dark object low to the ground will be a body. Then, afterwards––when the shock subsides––everything illuminated will become not a body.”
Hempel’s narrators exhibit restraint from the very first sentences: She writes characters who restructure their reality by renegotiating their interior spaces––detaching from the emotional gravity of a situation; using humor to deflect pain; focusing on mundane details to cultivate a sense of normalcy. This manner in which they reassemble themselves and their memories in regard to trauma is what propels the story. It’s a matter of precision.
If not a poem, entirely poetic.
“My hand is shaking while I write. It’s saying what I can’t say –– this is the way I say it.”
(“Reference #388475848-5,” 341)
There is no better way to avoid the subject than to do just that. Digression is another method by which Hempel’s narrators avoid looking at a traumatic incident dead on. In some of Hempel’s stories, the narrator quickly pivots from one subject to another. In addition to using digression to provide backstory or parallel plot structures, Hempel crafts digressions to reflect interiority. Once again, its how the narrator reveals her story that is emphasized. In stories as concise as Hempel’s, there cannot be a moment of stasis: Story structures rely on scene digressions to manipulate physical space as another aesthetic medium through which tremors of tension reverberate.
In “Pool Night,” narrative digression deflects the impact of the narrator’s emotional response to a traumatic event. The narrator begins by revealing her interior: “Maybe I wasn’t losing everything. But I didn’t try to save it. That is what makes it different from the first time. They had to lead me out of the house, and not because I didn’t know my way out in the smoke” (57). After this admission, the narrator immediately steps away from the precipice of emotion, distancing herself from this traumatic event by focusing on a different character’s response to a different disaster: She launches into a story about a man who was also pulled from his house during an earlier flood. She then digresses even further from her trauma, using most of the story space to contextualize the flood. This digression’s purpose is multifold; it provides a metaphor for two disasters, serves as a plot echo to the fire’s destruction, and establishes the sentiment behind a photograph that was later lost in the fire. This digression takes up most of the story space until the end where the narrator stuns the reader with an interior disclosure: “I know that homes burn and that you should think what to save before they start to. Not because, in the heat of it, everything looks as valuable as everything else. But because nothing looks worth the bother, not even your life” (62). This disclosure mirrors the emotional intensity of the narrator’s earlier assertion, providing story symmetry.
Unlike “Pool Night,” that focuses on one lengthy digression, the narrator of “Tonight Is a Favor to Holly” uses multiple shorter digressions to distract herself from the dramatic event. A mere seven pages, the story uses nine digressions to dance among four different story lines. The digressions move between plot, two subplots and backstory. Imagine each of these components as images etched on a transparency: Only when you overlay all the transparencies are you offered a cohesive story-image. But in the light of these digressions, the importance of story structure heightens lest the narrative spin out of control and lose focus completely. One image cannot obscure another; each image must be present to construct the story’s entirety.
“Tonight Is a Favor to Holly” relies on short sentences and sentence-long paragraphs to pace quickly between digressions. The introduction itself consists of four paragraphs that totaling only one hundred words: The narrator introduces the plot (the narrator’s friend sets her up on a date against her preference); its last paragraph, only five words, digresses toward a sparse exposition that uses aesthetic to reflect the narrator’s ambivalence toward the blind date:
What I’d rather do is what we usually do––mix our rum and Cokes, and drink them on the sand while the sun goes down.
We live the beach life.
Not the one with sunscreen and resort wear. I mean, we just live at the beach. Out the front door is sand. There’s the ocean, and we see it every day of the year. (5)
In the spirit of brevity, the story’s first digression––taking place at, “We live the beach life”––distances the narrator from the circumstances of plot and closer to her interiority. The narrator’s emotional detachment reverberates through the tone used to describe her life of habit and continuity. The passage is emotionally bereft: The severity of the digression’s turn, as well as its syncopated sentence structure, emphasizes ambivalence. Without the aesthetics of Hempel’s digressions, this emotional truth would flounder.
Though digressions are not used to same extent in each story, they are used to a similar purpose: Digressive shifts prioritize how a restrained narrator arrives at (or avoids) an emotional truth. “Tonight Is a Favor to Holly” peaks at the point its narrator discloses her motivation: “All right, I’m smiling when I say this. But the favor I’ll expect in return is to not have to do it again” (10). Quick digressions organize physical space to reflect interior space: Short sentences and paragraphs mirror quick movements to and from the subject, suggesting the narrator’s unwillingness to look at something dead on; whereas long passages of interior monologue might suggest fixation rather than avoidance. The prose of Doris Lessing embodies an outside example of this alternative interior state––fixation: In Lessing’s story, “To Room 19,” scenes are severed by long passages of the narrator’s interior monologue. But in Hempel’s stories, digressions often distract from the narrator’s fixation on the dramatic moment rather than dwelling on it. In “Tonight Is a Favor to Holly,” emotional distance is further emphasized with passage of time––the dramatic moment (during a move the narrator loses all her belongings over the edge of a Pacific Coast cliff) isn’t revealed until late in the story and surfaces in its singular passage of backstory.
But narrative distractions risk losing the reader in the long and winding corridors of digressions. Whether it be one long digression, or a series of rapid turns, at what point is the reader led too far astray from the emotional epicenter of narrative? Interior disclosures often tread as close to epiphany or climax as Hempel allows. If the digressions are too long or too meandering, the impact of interiority threatens to lose its resonance along the way. Though each digression is poignant in its own right, I’d argue “Tonight Is a Favor to Holly” loses emotional focus among its multiple digressions and the long digression in “Pool Night” overwhelms the impact of the narrator’s interior disclosure.
“I noted these gestures as they happened, not in any retrospect––though I don’t know why looking back should show us more than looking at.”
(“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” 39)
Some time after I found the resident’s body, I wrote a fictionalized account of the experience. Though the story is predominantly in past tense, I wrote the moment the narrator finds the body in present tense to collide with the present story-moment. I didn’t remember what happened, I relived what happened, and I relived it repeatedly. I wanted to portray this mode of interiority using tense as an aesthetic. A shortened version of this passage follows:
You have taught me the difference between memory and flashback. Living alone offers space for you to enter my thoughts. Memory is to recollect. Memory is the comfort of past tense. Flashback is to re-experience. It is right now.
I am rearranging furniture. I am moving a desk. I am lifting your arm. I am putting my finger to your wrist to feel for the tremor of a pulse that indicates a heart still beating but your heart is still. The desk snuggles into a corner. There is a draft from an old window I haven’t bothered to cover in plastic. I am wondering why you have your fan blowing in mid December. Why you have no clothes on. I put on a pair of slippers. I pull a sweater out of a box and brush my palms across its pilled yellow surface to rid it of dust.
I don’t feel anything.
Paramedics ask me to turn you onto your back. I can only move the broad wooden desk several inches to the right––farther from the draft. I try to turn you onto your back, but you are too heavy and still. I sit down, set my arms on the desk. As if to relearn sitting. Slippers warm my feet. I separate the large paperclips from small ones. I place my fingers on your neck above the tattoo that inked your name, scrawled in perfect cursive across your slack tendons. I clear my throat. My voice quiets.
I can’t move her, I say.
I keep trying to feel your pulse as though I might will your heart back to beating. As though the fan hums the answer to why you feel so cold. The paperclips gleam in two tidy piles––two lopsided metallic eyes with a stare that dances on the ceiling in what little light the window has to offer this mid December. In the quiet, I think I hear something that sounds like scurrying in the other room. You are still on your side. My fingers still planted above the perfect cursive of your name. For a second, I think I feel a tremor. From my desk, I think I hear a mouse skittering across the floor in the other room. If I could stand to look away, I would close my eyes and concentrate on the feeling. I listen for the scurrying again, but it’s gone. Was never there. The paperclips’ glare hits the wall like a throng of fireflies, all aflame at once. I imagine the blood in your body coming to a halt. I imagine it sitting still in your veins. I have stopped trying to turn you on your back. Stopped feeling for a pulse I know isn’t there. A cold gust pushes through the window.
I feel nothing but cold.
I use this example to suggest that tense is not only a tool used to manipulate time, but is another aspect of craft that can reflect a narrator’s relationship to traumatic events. In Hempel’s stories, tense shifts are yet another craft structure that supports negative narrative space––another manner in which narrators navigate emotional distance.
We can look at retrospective storytelling as a careful selection of souvenir moments to bring home to sit on the mantels our memory. They are souvenirs that figure in the retelling. But souvenirs often don’t reflect a true experience. Rather they often speak to how we wish we had experienced something––the conch shells are never chipped, the shiny or intricately-patterned stone doesn’t speak to the thousands of unremarkable rocks that surrounded it. Tense shifts can achieve the same effect as digression by showing how a narrator constructs and changes proximity to a traumatic event. Shifting between present and past tense to convey the same story moment can indicate interior tumult.
Until closely reading Hempel’s, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” I had only regarded tense as a means by which an author navigates through a specific timeline of events: Present tense reflects a certain sense of urgency and immediacy. Present continuous might allude to a constant state of reliving a moment. Past tense might suggest the greater objectivity of retrospect. By using different tenses within the same story-moment, Hempel deemphasizes a conventional relationship between tense and plot movement. In “Cemetery,” the narrator herself emphasizes the tense construction of her story rather than fixating on the drama itself: “I review those things that will figure in the retelling: a kiss through surgical gauze, the pale hand correcting the position of the wig. I noted these gestures as they happened, not in any retrospect––though I don’t know why looking back should show us more than looking at” (350). Though the narrator is clearly telling the story from a retrospective point of view, she also asserts her ambivalence to such a point of view. This following passage indicates a particular use of tense shifts that emphasizes narrative interior. The paragraph break marks where the narrator moves forward in the story’s timeline but shifts from present tense to past tense:
The ocean they stare at is dangerous, and not just the undertow. You can almost see the lapping tails of sand sharks keeping cruising bodies alive.
If she looked, she could see this, some of it, from her window. She would be the first to say how little it takes to make a thing all wrong.
There was a second bed in the room when I got back to it! (347)
The switch from present tense distances the reader from the story-moment to characterize her friend. The scene illustrates Hempel’s attention to characterization over depiction of scene. But more distinct is the ultimate shift from present tense to past tense. Before this point, tense shifts between past and present have been used to describe the same story-moment; however, it is because the storyline unambiguously moves immediately forward after the section break that the reader questions the intention of this shift from present to past tense.
Though I would not argue that this method of tense-shifting is unwarranted, I would argue that its placement seems arbitrary: Other than reinforcing the narrative interior, these tense shifts do not overtly center on a certain metaphor, character or aspect of scene and therefore do not reiterate any particular aspect of the narrative voice. If anything, these tense shifts seem to fulfill the poetic aesthetic to maintain a smoother rhythm. Among Hempel’s stories that I’ve read, this particular method of tense shifts is not repeated. This leads me to question whether the tense shifts in “Cemetery” were entirely deliberate.
But a technique that does surface in multiple Hempel stories is the use of present tense within story or backstory to refer to a story-moment that occurred previous to the “narrative-moment.” In “San Francisco” from Hempel’s The Collected Stories, the narrator shifts from present tense to past tense when referring to the same backstory-moment. “Good God, she is on that couch when the big one hits./ Maidy didn’t tell you, but you know what her doctor said? When she sprang from the couch and said, ‘My God, was that an earthquake?’” (27). The tense shift in this passage emphasizes the significance of the moment when the big one hits.
Present continuous reflects state of mind rather than state of being. Hempel uses present continuous for two different effects: One is to express how a narrator exists in––or even fixates on––an implied traumatic moment. In “Tom-Rock Through the Eels,” the narrator switches between present continuous and past tense while processing her mother’s suicide:
I don’t fall asleep with my body on the bed in the same way my mother was found. It must be a thing I go into when I am asleep. And still I cannot be sure that, limb for limb, I am in the same position. My mother’s legs, when I saw her, were covered by the sheet; it is possible that my legs are bent where my mother’s legs were straight (183).
Present continuous in this passage characterizes the narrator’s interior––reflecting the narrator’s desire to differentiate from her mother. This application differs from “Tonight Is a Favor to Holly,” where present continuous reflects the narrator’s preferred state of mind.
Tense shifts help define a narrator’s relationship to traumatic events without relying on interior disclosure––it can characterize a narrator who is distracted from the immediacy or memory of a traumatic event or it can lead her more closely to it. But these tense shifts reveal a narrator’s wavering interior. In “Cemetery,” this ambivalence to time is not a product of inattention, but one component of the voice of Hempel’s aesthetic: It prioritizes the narrator’s relationship to events rather than the scenes’ relationship to time.
“‘No one tells me better stories,’ he assures me. I was aware of the point at which a compliment becomes a trap, because you are expected to keep doing the thing you are praised for; resentment will follow when you stop.”
In her interview with Hart, Hempel said of her process: “I do still need the last line before I begin, and that’s how I know the story is done––when I reach it.” It seems that ascribing to a premeditated ending may not allow as much wandering room, rendering a careful aesthetic all the more important. But when does deliberation become arbitrary methodology? In a story by Jennifer Egan, one of her characters states: “The problem was precision, perfection … which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh. Film, photography, music: dead. An aesthetic holocaust!” (18). An over-groomed aesthetic risks distracting the reader from the narrative’s emotional truth. There are moments in Hempel’s stories where its aesthetic seems to overwhelm this truth.
The juxtaposition of gravity of plot events and the narrator’s tone lends itself to a complex emotional detachment. But sometimes the tone seems detached merely out of habit, and compromises the individual narrator’s identity. Each character who experiences a mother’s suicide in The Collected Works of Amy Hempel addresses the traumatic event in a similarly cavalier fashion: In “The Most Girl Part of You,” Big Guy addresses his mother’s suicide saying: “‘Any place I hang myself is home.’” The narrator in “Tom-Rock Through the Eels” expresses her lackluster relationship to her mother through metaphor: “When the car lights go out, a porter brings me a blanket. He tucks it around my shoulders like––what else?––like a mother.” In “Tumble Home,” the narrator says of her mother: “The only surprise when she killed herself was that she had killed herself.”
At times, narrative identity gets lost in similarity of diction. In “Church Cancels Cow,” a woman who accuses the narrator’s dog of defecating on her parents’ graves mistakenly says “faces” instead of “feces;” in “The New Lodger,” a local at the bar mistakes “new lodger” for “new lager,” in “Tonight is a Favor to Holly,” Suzy slurs her speech, calling her squatting partner “Hard” instead of “Howard.” Because Hempel’s aesthetic relates so much to the interior landscape of her narrators, the persistence of this aesthetic threatens to blur narrative identities. Many of the narrators respond similarly to their dramatic periphery, regardless of what their conflict is.
But this persistent aesthetic, crafted through resonant themes, relationships and ideas, renders a collective narrative interior. Dominant themes in each collection reflect narrative obsession; fear, flight, humor, earthquakes, animals and animal companionship, art, death, car crashes, cemeteries. Narrators’ anonymity also supports a collective narrative interior––none of Hempel’s first person narrators are offered a name, let alone physical description. Sometimes, the resonance is more overt: In “Tumble Home,” Hempel reuses an entire paragraph from “Tom-Rock Through the Eels”––a story from Tumble Home’s preceding collection. The narrator in “Tumble Home,” who is writing an intimate letter to an artist she has met once, continues this conversation in Hempel’s last story of The Dog of Marriage, “Offertory,” where an intimate relationship between the two characters ensues.
Aesthetic cannot be the only method for resonance. Poetry is not enough. Neither is crafting tension. “Pool Night” ends on an interior disclosure quoted earlier in this essay: “I know that homes burn and that you should think what to save before they start to. Not because, in the heat of it, everything looks as valuable as everything else. But because nothing looks worth the bother, not even your life” (62). The reader knows the narrator feels her life doesn’t look worth the bother but isn’t privy to why the she feels this way. The backstory supports the story’s digression rather than substantiating this emotional disclosure. In my estimation, that is why “Cemetery” is a more satisfying story than “Pool Night.” In “Cemetery,” the narrator has conflict with her dying friend, but it is the narrator’s internal conflict that is most poignant. “Cemetery” is able to balance these modes of conflict: The narrative does not sacrifice internal conflict at the expense of external conflict––instead they intertwine, fortifying one another. In “Cemetery,” both aesthetic and scene––the story itself––provide resonance for tension and conflict. The reader is better able to emphasize with the narrator and how events affected her. This is not to say that resonant tension is only achieved at the expense of brevity. “San Francisco” is a piece of flash fiction that externalizes the narrator’s internal conflict through aesthetic andthrough the narrator’s relationship to her sister.
It seems possible that writing a story toward a predetermined ending might bind a writer to her aesthetic––trying to arrive at a particular destination instead of going where a story takes her. In “Offertory,” Hempel’s narrator mentions a critic who refers to a character’s paintings as “art that conceals art” (378). I think this is the risk of an overdeveloped aesthetic––style that conceals art itself. I am borrowing a phrase from a book review written by J.T. Bushnell when I say Hempel’s art––her aesthetic–– “emphasizes how people create their narrative over the event themselves.” Hempel’s stories don’t typically emphasize story moments when everything falls apart––the event that dismantles a narrator’s sense of self. Rather, it emphasizes how the narrator reconstructs her identity after these pieces have been put back together––almost as though each narrator is a curator to the artistic reinvention of her own story. The circumvention of narrative restraint, in and of itself, comes to establish narrative truth.
“I look at my nails in the harsh bathroom light. The scare will appear as a ripple at the base. It will take a couple weeks to see.”
(In a Tub, 4)
I started this essay thinking I would defend Hempel’s writing against skeptical peers who refer to her a “stylist” or a “writer’s writer.” And, if I am entirely honest, I would have to say I would also be defending why Hempel’s writing influences me. But I have since refigured everything I believe about Hempel’s writing and what makes writing dramatic. I thought if I could highlight how (and why) Hempel crafts her aesthetic, that I would be redeemed somehow––that I would prove the aesthetic of Hempel is essential in establishing narrative voice. Reading Hempel, I have learned much about craft. But reading her more closely, I’ve learned a hell of a lot more. As a person (and I would go as far to say as a people) we define ourselves through our manner of storytelling as much as (if not more) than we define ourselves through the stories themselves.
Amy Hempel said of writing, “I just try to remember something Grace Paley said about revision––that you should go back and look at every word and ask yourself if it’s true” (Hart, Amy Hempel Interview). But the words Hempel’s narrators choose not to say hold just as much truth. The voice of Hempel’s aesthetic is dramatic to its core: She hints at what isn’t revealed and offers access to the constant (if quiet) drama that infuses every moment of everyday life. The drama doesn’t exist on the periphery, but entirely inhabits the narrative––inhabits each sentence and truthful word.
At work, I am surrounded by unspoken stories: a woman unintentionally kills her fiance in self-defense; a woman’s parents sexually exploited her as a child for financial gain; a woman who sexually exploited her children for financial gain tried to salvage their relationship; a woman attacks a police officer with a knife after a psychotic break; I find a woman dead in her room from an overdose of prescription medication; a woman who had undergone shock treatments in the late seventies suffers from a brain contusion that went undiagnosed for decades; a woman is bound in a closet and tortured then kidnapped and stuffed in a trunk, and is later shot when she tries to flee her perpetrators. These stories are the earthquakes in peoples’ lives, those moments that create large and defining rifts of our human experience. These are moments that dismantle one’s sense of self. Trauma inhabits us––inhabits everyone to different extents. Amy Hempel is a writer whose fiction exemplifies how these moments inhabit characters as opposed to how characters might identify directly with them.
Hempel’s stories, and each story’s truth, exist within these narrative spaces.
The room is almost empty, and in it, Hempel allows enough space for me to notice my own relationship to restraint in life and writing if I’m willing to look at it. The question turns from what’s already in the room to how we fill it. My favorite writers are those who inspire me to write just like myself––writers who beg authenticity over imitation, whose stories dismantle my own sense of self. Without knowing it, I’ve spent a long time trying to write an Amy Hempel story, but I’ve looked long enough to start writing my own.
Perhaps I am no different than one of Hempel’s narrators––a writer defined more by the questions that inhabit these spaces than the story itself. But then again, this is just one way to fill an empty room.
Balgach, Martin. “Re: Interesting Press.” Message to the author. 30 Aug. 2010. E-mail.
Bushnell, J.T. review of Call It What You Want, by Keith Lee Morris, Fiction Writers Review. fictionwritersreview.com/reviews, October 08, 2010. Web. 09 Nov. 2010.
Egan, Jennifer. “The Gold Cure.” A Visit from the Goon Squad. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. 15-29. Print.
Lessing, Doris. “To Room Nineteen.” Stories. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2008. Print.
Hart, Rob. “A Long Time Coming.” Amy Hempel Interview. Chuckpalahniuk.net, 27 August, 2008. Web. 29 Sept. 2010.
Hempel, Amy. The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. New York: Scribner, 2007. Print.
Welch, David. “Forty-Eight Ways of Looking at Amy Hempel.” Author Interviews. Powell’s.com, 27 April. 2006. Web. 29 Sept. 2010.