There are two aspects of Hempel's fiction that stand out: their brevity and their unique and powerful sentences. Hempel is not only the mistress of under-2000-word story, but her sentences glorify the teachings of Gordon Lish, for whom she was a star student -- they are near-perfect and build upon one another like pieces of a Lego set, until the final product is a nifty toy to play with.
Hempel's fiction is indeed playful -- with words, with scenes, with intent and style: "the playfulness of your heart" (Reasons to Live 4). "The Harvest," from her second book, is an example of her textual mischievousness. "The year I began to say vhaz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me" (9) the story begins, and then lists a series of unfortunate events that happen to the narrator, as if the decision to alter the pronunciation of a word in an uppity manner is the result of bad luck. Half-way through the story, we are told: "I leave a lot out when I tell the truth" (13) and informed that artistic license was taken in the previous telling of events. The story becomes metatextual: "I'm going to start now to tell you what I left out in "The Harvest," and maybe begin to wonder why I had to leave it out" (13). Hempel lists the "truths" she left out or altered because "the awkward syllables when you have to say motorcycle" (13) and "it is something you might not have accepted in 'The Harvest'" (13). In an interview with Dave Welch at powells.com, Hempel admits that she wrote "The Harvest"
with a real accident in mind, one that changed my life. And when I finished it, I thought, Isn't it curious? Look at everything I changed or embellished or left out to make it a story that works. I hadn't planned to, but I wrote the kind of addendum or deconstruction, after a space break, playing with the whole idea of personal mythmaking, which we all do -- we're mythologizing our lives every day when we talk about ourselves.
The story stands out from the rest of Hempel's work; postmodern turns of narrative are not her typical style. Her stories are mainly told in the first person and are plotless -- from one or two page prose poems to longer works that are a series of scenes and vignettes that build on each other; while they do not tell a traditional beginning-mid-end story, they create an atmosphere of emotions and thoughts as if one were gazing at a photo essay of a person's life. "In a Tub" and "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried" from Reasons to Live are examples of both.
"In a Tub" is two pages long. The narrator -- who has no name or defined gender (typical of not only Hempel's work, but many minimalist writers, as if it does not matter, only the words and sentences matter) -- is lost in the world, looking for meaning:
My heart -- I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God. I passed two churches with cars parked in front. Then I stopped at the third because no one else had (3).
The narrator is a loner, does not want to commune with the deity with other people, alone. In fact, loneliness permeates the atmosphere of the text -- "I thought about the feeling of the long missed beat" (3). The narrator returns home to a cat and an empty house, thinks about the past, and reveals a gender: "When I was a girl I sneaked out at night" (3). Seeing that "the birdbath is shaped like a tub" (4) she decides to take a bath and seems to find the peace of mind that the church did not afford: "You ease yourself into a tub of water, you ease yourself down [É] Then you take a deep breath, and slide your head under" (4). The water is a good place for her to hide and feel safe. And that is it, that is the story -- no plot, no dialogue, poem more than narrative. Yet it acts as curtain opener for the rest of the collection, layering the book's overall feeling of people who are lost and dealing with loss, grief, loneliness; Hempel's narrators are uncertain of their place in the world.
"In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried" is Hempel's best-known story, widely anthologized and used in college courses as an example of, along with Raymond Carver and Mary Robison, 1980s minimalist fiction. This was also Hempel's first effort at writing, composed in Lish's class at Columbia, as she tells powells.com: "We were told to write up our worst secret: the thing that would dismantle my sense of myself, as he [Lish] put it." The story was published in TriQuarterly and began her new career (she was previously a journalist at the Los Angeles branch of CBS) as a storywriter. Again, essentially plotless and a series of moments and conversations, opening with:
Tell me things I won't mind forgetting," she said. "Make it useless stuff or forget it."
I began. I told her insects fly through rain, missing every drop, never getting wet. I told her no one in America owned a tape recorder before Bing Crosby did. I told her the shape of a room is like a banana -- you see it looking full, you're seeing it end-on (39).
Hempel's first sentences are forcibly striking and hard to forget, despite the request of forgetfulness above. "Tonight is a Favor to Holly" opens with: "A blind date is coming to pick me up, and unless my hair grows an inch by seven o'clock, I am not going to answer the door" (Reasons 7). Others: "There is a typo on the hospital menu this morning" (Reasons, "Going" 71). "Things turned around after I saw the Breathing Jesus" (Reasons, "Breathing Jesus" 125). From these first sentences, Hempel creates a second, a third, a fourth sentence just as remarkable with the use of language and rhetoric, building, eschewing plot and symbol and foreshadow and any other conventions of fiction, painting on the canvas page. This sort of writing style is not for everyone, just as Carver's style was not appreciated by all. Critical reception for Hempel's work was, and still is, mixed and varied. She has created a niche for herself in contemporary American fiction, however, and like her sentences, her place in minimalist canon cannot be denied.
Hempel, Amy. Reasons to Live. NY: Knopf, 1985.
-----. At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom. NY: Knopf, 1990.
Welch, Dave. "Forty-Eight Ways of Looking at Amy Hempel." Retrieved June 17, 2008 at http://www.powells.com/authors/hempel. html
[This essay is excerpted from Gordon Lish and His Influence on Twentieth Century American Literature: Life and Times of Captain Fiction, forthcoming from Routledge in late 2009 or early 2010]