The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel begins with her first volume, Reasons to Live, published in 1985, and moves through the decades with At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Tumble Home, and finally her latest, impeccable collection of short stories, which came out in 2005, The Dog of the Marriage. The earliest stories are almost eerily evocative of that brief moment when the short story reigned in all its oblique glory, the 1980s, and not because of any events or landmarks of that period, but purely because of the language.
Hempel’s stories sound like the Eighties. There is that tautological tail flicking at the end of a sentence: “I saw him do it once, which is all the times he did it.” There is the present tense, the carefully careless diction, the unnamed first-person narrator, often telling tales that belong to someone else: “The best I can explain it is this—I have a friend who worked one summer in a mortuary. He used to tell me stories. The one that really got to me was not the grisliest, but it’s the one that did.” There is, always, the affectation of the ordinary, the ornamental flatness of tone.
Hempel has long been considered one of the most talented practitioners of what came to be known as the minimalist short story. But now, reading this collection, reading in order almost fifty of these wisps of narrative together in one place, the label of minimalist, even the category of short story, seems almost irrelevant. Over the last twenty years, Amy Hempel has composed something altogether different—a fascinating fictional journal, a diary, really, though not so much of a life lived as of an inner life observed.
The earliest stories, from Reasons to Live, are as light as air and at the same time seem airless, for they almost always take place inside—in a car, in a bedroom, in a bar, in a hospital, and, most important, in a particular consciousness. Even when we’re on the beach, the feeling is close, hemmed in, a place where everyone is “tranquilized, numb, or asleep,” a place bordered by a flamingo-pink retirement home where someone dies “every time the sheets are changed.” The only real weather in these West Coast stories is catastrophic—a thunderstorm, an earthquake. Amy Hempel’s true landscapes are interior, a way of seeing, a view turned on the world rather than reflecting it. And it is that view, from the inside out, that leads us through these stories, like a hooded protagonist in a novel.
Life, in this first section, is a quietly aimless, unfinished business of other peoples’ deaths, suicides, car accidents. It begins with a heart that skips a beat: “My heart—I thought it stopped.” The heart starts beating again, but the real focus of the story is not so much the beating of the heart as it is how to hear the beating of a heart. The best place to listen …