The Collected Stories. Amy Hempel

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. Scribners, New York, 2006. F;4/19.

These are unusual and compelling short stories. Hempel is a nonconformist among short fiction writers, and her colloquial style and straight-ahead content belie but also frame what she accomplishes. Judging from the picture leading James Wood’s spring 2019 New Yorker article I was expecting fey and flowery. She’s a fair bit more complicated than that. More (I thought remembering a nonconformist colleague psychiatrist’s characterization of a tough young nurse I referred to him) like a cross between Bambi and Captain Bligh. Or for this author Henny Youngman in princess drag. But there’s more still…

I got bewildered and a bit put off by the first couple of stories, where Hempel’s acerbic sense of humour seemed to be all there was, the tone just smartass. But with Going dark shading appeared as a boy drove off the road, and in Realization a pretty nurse in the hospital made another boy think of his mother, who committed suicide. Then something resembling the ambiguity of Shirley Jackson (and Alice Munro too): life’s cheery surface and life’s inner horror, appeared and persisted, but without losing balance (Hempel keeps laughing…):

One day into (quitting smoking), I realized the only thing that made me smart was nicotine. Now I can’t plan a trip from the bed to the bathroom. I don’t find the front door 50 percent of the time.

Hempel has preoccupations, and they are autobiographical: mother’s suicide, pets especially dogs, flowers, living by the ocean. I couldn’t find much about her marriage or marriages online, but in her work we find recurring estranged or distant husbands, and a painter who may have been one. But in the same way that humour persists in the face of death and abandonment, romantic love remains lively in the face of failed relationships. Hempel is what I call a good feminist. She hates the bad things bad men do, but doesn’t tar all men with that same brush. She loves the good ones while cooly appraising them, and like Mary Gaitskill is thinking about gender relationships instead of following a least-resistance line. 

Tumble Home, the longest and novella-length story, is a letter from an inmate in a mental hospital to a male artist friend. Like her love life, I don’t see much about Amy Hempel’s mental health online, but talking through the world of somebody on the inside experiencing that kind of trouble admits more free association and opportunity to get linear- and plot-line-preoccupied matters out of the way. The food is terrible (“kale not even the moles will eat”), but the conversation contains Hempel’s wonderful range of understanding:

A passing thought: “Can a woman hurt you as much as a man?” “Worse,” I tell her. “They understand you better, so they can hurt you worse.” “That’s what I thought,” she says.

After reading Wood in the New Yorker, I wasn’t convinced by his preoccupation with Hempel’s music and tone, but toward the end of this longish collection I started to get what I guess he was talking about. The sentences. Along with, carried along by, the humour and death and relationships and preoccupations was something lighter but deeper. I have the feeling I could go back and read the stories again without paying much attention to the characters and plot, and read them the way you read Ashbery poetry. Just for the lovely cadence and unexpected jumps that take you gently by the shoulders and say: pay attention! There’s more going on than you think.

Great stuff. 9.1/8.6

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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