Keeping Up with Amy Hempel
I have not stopped thinking about the title story of Amy Hempel’s new collection, “Sing to It” (Scribner). Is it a short story, really? Or a poem? Here it is, entire:
At the end, he said, No metaphors! Nothing is like anything else. Except he said to me before he said that, Make your hands a hammock for me. So there was one.
He said, Not even the rain—he quoted the poet—not even the rain has such small hands. So there was another.
At the end, I wanted to comfort him. But what I said was, Sing to it. The Arab proverb: When danger approaches, sing to it.
Except I said to him before I said that, No metaphors! No one is like anyone else. And he said, Please.
So—at the end, I made my hands a hammock for him.
My arms the trees.
Like most of Amy Hempel’s short fiction, this is lucid and elusive at once, almost briskly mysterious. A man is dying, and the narrator is comforting him. The man asks the narrator to avoid the succor of metaphors, since—we might surmise—honesty is required, death is death, and “nothing is like anything else.” But the dying man cannot avoid being metaphorical, and asks the narrator, whose hands are smaller even than the rain (the line is from E. E. Cummings), to make a hammock for him, to cradle him. And so she does. That is what the story is “about.”
Yet the text is also constructed and compacted like a poem, delicate and precise. A person wants to “sing” to the impending danger, but also to abide by the other’s injunction to avoid figurative language. Instead of using a metaphor, she becomes a metaphor: “My arms the trees.” Now Hempel’s valedictory text, titled “Sing to It,” itself saturated in these lovely figures of speech, becomes the song that she would have sung, looping back on itself like one. And a further subtlety: when the man asked for no more metaphors, he said that nothing is like anything else, but when the narrator echoes those words the reason given is that “no one is like anyone else.” This is not a story about death, that distinguished thing; it is an elegy for an irreducible person. All of this in little more than a hundred words.
“Sing to It” is Hempel’s fifth collection of stories since the publication of her first, “Reasons to Live,” in 1985. There are no empty vessels when everything has its proper weight. Hempel works carefully, sparingly, glancingly. Perhaps, in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, she learned from her teacher Gordon Lish how to abolish the nonessential, but then she got to work on the essential. Her stories assemble extraordinary sentences. And each purified sentence is itself a story, a kind of suspended enigma. “Between them it was always almost over, especially at the start,” is one of the lines from a three-page story in the new collection. Another difficult couple are characterized, in the same book, thus: “A thing between them: green apples.” Hempel’s readers have quivers full of these arrows: “The one-day sale on cantaloupe is into its third week.” “Down the road from the school is one of those classic mansions you admire until you notice it’s a funeral home.” “A Labrador eating looks like time-lapse photography.”
And her characters often speak as sparklingly and strangely as their creator writes. “If I were to sing, it would sound like talking louder,” a character says in “The Afterlife.” In “Du Jour,” a viciously shrewd piece about the difficulty of giving up smoking, the narrator tells us that she has gained weight since quitting cigarettes. “But not because I’m eating more of anything. I’m gaining weight because I’ve stopped coughing. Coughing was exercise for me.” This narrator meets a certain Mrs. Wynn, who is enrolled in the same addiction program. Mrs. Wynn, who likes to boast, says that she sings songs in four languages at a local supper club. In four languages? the narrator marvels. “Oh, God no,” Mrs. Wynn replies. “I’m exaggerating so you can get to know me faster.”
Hempel, like some practical genius of the forest, can make living structures out of what look like mere bric-a-brac, leavings, residue. It’s astonishing how little she needs to get something up and going on the page. A pun, a malapropism, or a ghost rhyme is spark enough. One of her earlier tales effectively turns on the fact that a woman pronounces “feces” as “faces.” Titles are generative for her, and are sometimes better than the texts they introduce: “And Lead Us Not Into Penn Station,” or “For Those of You Who Missed Your Connecting Flights Out of O’Hare.”
In her new collection, a two-page piece entitled “Fort Bedd” begins: “The second ‘d’ is silent.” And then: “We agreed on that, if not on much else.” From the title alone, Hempel crafts a short, dense monologue about an insular, or maybe claustrophobic, relationship. The couple are clinging to each other “for safety in the only safe place we knew,” a bed walled with pillows, in a dark bedroom where the curtains are always drawn. The relationship seems perilous, forced to retreat to this fort. The narrator finishes: “If we were going to get through this, I would need trees. The next day, or any day, I could slip away and drive to a nursery, pick up a tree—balled and burlapped—and put it in my car and take it to the edge of a field where no one would see me dig with the shovel I brought along. I could visit the tree I planted, bring water if it needed water.” That’s all the reader has to work with. The story stops short of creating a world. Instead, what we have is an atmosphere, paralyzed, repetitive, doomed: “The dark apartment rustled in the dark, and it was dark in the day as well.” What do those trees signify? Freedom and growth, the opposite of what the relationship has become? Meaning wisps away, off the page.
But Hempel’s stories are not themselves wispy; they are grounded in comedy, in mundane objects, in old-fashioned social friction. Her characters and narrators are often a bit eccentric, often solitary or even antisocial, and drift at the fringes of things, nursing remembered pain and relishing the companionship of a dog. (Hempel and dogs go together like Flannery O’Connor and God.) But their despair is subdued by the solace of intelligence, wit, and tart stoicism. In “Moonbow,” another very short story from Hempel’s new collection, the narrator goes out into her back yard to look at the moon, and encounters a bear. The bear starts playing with a ball that used to belong to the narrator’s dog, Logan, who died a month before. Then he slurps some water from Logan’s water bowl. He rolls on his back, “his feet like those of one other creature I knew.” Something is like something else: Logan has returned. The narrator calls out to the reincarnated dog. The story is saved from whimsy or sentimentality by this nicely humdrum coda:
I tell him what has happened since I lost him, and assure him that I approved of his valedictory bite, that awful deliveryman who had it coming. I tell him that the deli has gone up for sale, that another antiques store has opened, that I hate my haircut, that I have not thrown anything away, that the water in the kitchen has developed a metallic aftertaste.
The narrator of “Cloudland,” the longest story in the new book, is another of Hempel’s drifting solitaries, a woman struggling to construct a life in Florida, after losing her job as a teacher at a private girls’ school in Manhattan. She now works as a part-time caregiver, visiting old people in retirement communities and in their homes. She calls herself “more of a one-to-one type,” and regards her neighbors warily. There are flashes of the characteristic Hempel grit, a strategic and speedy brightness: “I’ve only known one person who was imprisoned, a guy I went out with once. He was smug, I thought, but this was back when I gave people a chance.” This time, however, the pain cannot be kept at bay. As “Cloudland” unfolds, we learn that the narrator, as an eighteen-year-old, gave a baby up for adoption, and cannot bury the memory of this loss. The story has a very free form, moving back and forth between an almost diaristic present—in which the narrator muses on such things as the recent death of Prince, climate change, Floridian weather—and memories of the past, dominated by the anguish of her youthful decision. Although the story, at sixty-one pages, is almost novella length, it proceeds like much of Hempel’s fiction, which is to say, mysteriously: it seems to be made of nothing very much, just fictive flotsam, stray observations and aperçus that the author is arranging. The arrangement holds, somehow. The story is sombrely moving, and the symmetries of form resemble the ending of “Fort Bedd”: there is stasis and growth. Here Hempel carefully balances a crazily fertile Florida landscape, where everything grows too quickly and invasive species rapidly take hold and tropical storms wreak havoc, with the frozen mistake—the seed that was given to someone else to tend—that has shadowed the narrator’s life.
Hempel is an experimental writer, in the way that Grace Paley was an experimental writer. Like Paley, who has clearly been an influence, she is easy to read and sometimes harder to comprehend. Her sentences are not complex, but the speed of their connection to one another is a little breathtaking. You need to slow down in order to go as quickly as Hempel is travelling. Like Paley, she is a natural storyteller who is also very interested in the artifice of storytelling—in the ways that stories deform or hide the truth, in what can and can’t be disclosed on the page. She is a self-reflexive writer who, miraculously, doesn’t seem self-conscious.
Many of her best stories, like “The Harvest,” “Offertory,” and “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” involve characters telling and retelling the same stories in different ways. “Offertory” is about a man and a woman who are locked in an obsessive relationship, in which the man relentlessly, devotedly demands from his lover erotic stories from her past experiences. But he is not really interested in the veracity of these tales, because he is constructing a fantasy; and perhaps his lover is making them up anyway. “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” which appeared in Hempel’s first book, and probably remains her most celebrated piece of writing, is a painful and acutely witty tribute to a young friend who died of leukemia. From a hospital bed in California, the friend asks the narrator to entertain her with some tales, but things she won’t mind forgetting: “Make it useless stuff or skip it.” So the narrator delivers a mashup of absurdist nonsense—that Tammy Wynette has changed the title of her song to “Stand by Your Friends,” or crazy stuff from the newspaper about a man robbing a bank with a chicken. Meanwhile, the beloved friend, who possesses all the wit of the best Hempel characters, issues quizzical and brilliant observations from her bed. She wonders why Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous stages of dying omit “Resurrection.” She sends the narrator to the hospital shop and asks her to bring anything back—except a magazine subscription.
The wit, the silly stories, the mad hypotheses are strategies of defense: a way of singing to the danger. And, as with “Sing to It,” Hempel’s text itself becomes the song that couldn’t be sung by the characters; it exists ideally in its suspensions and elisions, which the reader must inhabit and intuit. (“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” can be seen as an inversion of Grace Paley’s great story “A Conversation with My Father,” in which an old and bedridden man asks his daughter to tell him, for once, “a simple story. . . . Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.” The writer-daughter, of course, does not oblige.)
There is a lovely piece in the new collection, so brief that it ends almost before it has begun, that belongs with Hempel’s longer meditations on storytelling. It is called “The Quiet Car,” and it begins in the middle of things, in full Hempelian enigma: “That reminds me of when I knew a romance was over. I had not seen this fellow in a while, but he suggested we meet up at the train station and take the Acela somewhere, so I thought we’d have several hours to catch up. And then at the station, we boarded and he led me to our seats in the Quiet Car.” Four paragraphs follow, in which the narrator tells us that she is renting a summer house near the beach; that the snowbirds have returned; that the refrigerator is not working properly. We infer that she lives alone. A final paragraph comes full circle, or as close to it as Hempel ever gets, and we learn what triggered the introductory tale of the Quiet Car: the day before, the narrator had noticed an elderly man sitting in a leather recliner by the curb, “quietly disoriented.” The discarded chair reminds the narrator of a seat on an Amtrak train. The man does not seem to know where he is. When the police are called, he starts babbling about his son’s “many accomplishments.” The police, the narrator says, “were kind when they contacted the man’s son in another state. But this won’t go well, I thought, and chose not to follow the story.” And this is where “Quiet Car” also ends, as Hempel chooses to finish neither the man’s story nor her own. The actual Quiet Car is the chamber this story has made on the page, in which two tales were sounded and then just as quickly quietened. The narrator’s tone is not especially unhappy; it is wistful, unillusioned, stoic. She gives the impression that she is hoarding her reserves for future battles with other useless men.
In “Offertory,” which appeared a decade ago, in Hempel’s previous collection, the narrator remarks, despairingly, “He said he wanted to see everything, but did he, really? Does a person want to know the thing he is asking you to tell him?” These lines seem central to Amy Hempel’s work. We flinch from the truth, we take up convenient and fantastical fictive embroidery to avoid its dangers. But we also write stories to enable us to survive the truth, to sing to it and of it. The secret is in the quality of the song. ♦