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In the Space Between Words

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 to a heart that stops, the narrator explains, is under water in the bath after the ripples have died down, and it is the quiet calm smoothness of that tub, the narrator listening to her own heart—that intimate moment of the infinite in the casual, mundane setting of the bathtub—that is the world of Amy Hempel’s stories.

In “Why I’m Here,” the narrator is taking a vocational profiling test. “I’m the wrong age to be doing this,” she notes:

You take this test in college if you can’t pick a major. Or you take it to help you change your life—later, after you’ve had a life. Somewhere in the middle is the reason why I’m here.

Somewhere in the middle”—that noncommittal point in time and space—is where these early stories are set. Here people drift, amiable and aimless, in an almost cocky despair:

The vocational-guidance counselor…says, “Tell me the thing you do anyway and let’s find a way to get you paid for that.”

I ask about a job throwing sticks for dogs to fetch, and she says, “Oh, now,” and gives me the courtesy laugh.

The narrator does have one other thing she does anyway—she moves into new apartments. “Move enough times,” she remarks, “and you will never defrost a freezer.” Not a subtle metaphor, surely, but in Hempel’s story it glides by us with such ease, propelled by gentle comedy and good-natured hopelessness. The counselor asks,

What do you suppose would happen if you just stayed put? If you just stayed still long enough to think a thing through?”

I don’t know,” I say. “I won’t feel like myself.”

Oh,” she says, “but you will—you are.”

The humor, the lightness of the dialogue in this story—so beautifully balanced—together create Hempel’s easygoing mood of desperation, and that is one of her most endearing, magical sleights of hand. Doom may be everywhere, but it hovers as light as a cloud, as ephemeral as life.

The stories deal frequently with the language of grief—in one of Hempel’s best-known stories, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” explicitly so. The narrator has driven down the coast to visit her best friend who is dying in a Southern California hospital. Their playful familiarity is instantly recognizable—they are comfortable, confidential chums. “Tell things I won’t mind forgetting…,” the narrator’s dying friend says as she lies in bed, her face covered with a surgical mask. “Useless stuff….”

The narrator, through her own surgical mask, imparts bits of anecdote and trivia about a chimp who uses sign language and about Tammy Wynette. But it becomes clear that the narrator, who has shared so many years and private jokes with her best friend, is visiting her for the first time, arriving at the tail end of a long illness. And finally, in an act of what she clearly considers her own moral cowardice, overcome by fear and sadness, she deserts her dying friend, driving home, away from hospitals and surgical masks and sickness and death.

She does not, however, stop telling us “useless stuff,” continuing with the rest of the story of the chimp she mentioned earlier. The chimp had a baby whom she immediately began to address with signs. “And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.”

Emotion—rich, agonizing sadness—is filtered through the chatter of best friends, through the absurdity of useless facts, through an animal’s inability to comprehend what we cannot comprehend any better. Hempel often likes to refine general ennui through the filter of more general ennui, but here it is strong, raw emotion that passes through the screen of world-weary cleverness, and the result is heartbreaking. “I remember only the useless things I hear,” the narrator tells us, and we recognize that for her, all words are useless in the face of death. “It is just possible I will say I stayed the night,” the narrator says, imagining how she will tell this story of visiting her sick friend. “And who is there that can say that I did not?” Storytelling, Hempel suggests, offers a boundless freedom—who is there that can say I did not? Truth, however, is irrelevant—who is there that can say I did not? And so it is the story itself, finally, that compilation of useless words, that becomes, like the mother chimp’s useless lament, essential. The story is the language of grief.

It is one of Hempel’s most original and appealing strategies to use comedy to reach the language of grief. Not just humor or wit, of which there is plenty, but actual comedy, as in jokes. In stories that are so short, many of them a few pages, a few paragraphs, one as short as two sentences, rhythm is essential, and Hempel often chooses the rhythm of a joke. She is a master of the formal, structural underpinnings of the joke. The effect of a farmer’s daughter gag line on the diffuse despondency Hempel creates is not simply ironic—it is uncanny and uneasy. One story, “And Lead Us Not into Penn Station,” is a series of jokes, or at least prose poems in the shape of jokes, twelve of them, not counting the title. “Today, when a blind man walked into the bank, we handed him along to the front of the line where he ordered a BLT,” the narrator remarks, continuing with a litany of observations of her unsavory neighborhood that unfold on the page with the crisp, confident phrasing of a comedian on stage:

Women who are attacked phone a hotline for advice. “Don’t report a rape,” the women are told. “Call it indecent exposure. A guy who takes it out and doesn’t do anything with it—cops figure that guy is sick.”

But then, at the end of the story, comes the last “joke,” complete with its setup and pause and punch line: “These are the things that go on around here. After a while these things add up to enough weight to wear a person down. I am wearing down.” This is a punch line of sadness, of weariness, yet the pacing of this little story is brisk and full of life. In “Housewife,” a story that is only one sentence long, Hempel uses the punch line ending to evoke an entire cultural outlook as well as a wonderfully full and exact glimpse of one woman’s personal, moral, and cultural calculations. Here is the story in its entirety:

She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, “French film, French film.”

Hempel’s timing is always superb. In the intriguing, novella-length “Tumble Home,” she touches on the importance of comic timing and explicitly links it to aching emotional negation. When she was in seventh grade, the narrator says, her mother quit smoking:

I would ask her for permission to do something, and before I could get the question out she would have snapped back the answer—No! Years later, I heard a joke that brought this back. I say to you, “Ask me what is the secret of comedy.” You get as far as, “What is the secret”—and I cut you off with, “Timing.”

Timing, then, might also be considered the secret of tragedy, but for Hempel, tragedy is too big a word, too grand a concept, an ending, rather than a pause in the middle. Sadness, on the other hand, and hope are what exist in the middle, and it is sadness and hope that show up in these later stories.

In “Sportsman,” one of the few stories not written in the first person, a man named Jack drives from California to Long Island after the breakup of a relationship. He stays with an old friend and his wife, and Hempel’s jokes bounce somewhat frantically off one another as Jack, his friend, and his friend’s wife banter and eat and banter some more, the dialogue of casual gags diverting the reader and Jack from the real sensation of his loss. The story ends with a joke as well: a joke of hope and a joke on hope. Jack’s friend has fixed him up with her psychic. Jack is feeling renewed and optimistic as he and the psychic drive into the city for a date:

Jack said, “The city looks pretty good.”

The psychic said, “Give it a minute.”

This story is animated by a new vigor, absent from the occasionally effete early Hempel stories. With its funny comebacks and perfect punch line, “Sportsman” has one other important element that increasingly shows up: it has dogs.

The dogs had been napping in the herb garden, and came inside wagging thyme, basil, and dill through the kitchen. Jack flicked kernels [of popcorn] at the older dog, who caught them with a snap in the air. The clean way a dog enlists your heart, he thought.

In this story, it is only when the dogs come into the room that we glimpse, just for a moment, the terrible loss behind the clever wordplay, the intense hope behind the alienation. It is just a flash, but it is a flash of profoundly earnest feeling coming through the mist of witty ambiguity.

Hempel writes about dogs better than anyone. Her dogs embody the union of intimacy and impossible mystery that pervades her stories, yet they exist, stubbornly, gloriously, outside irony. They exist, in other words, outside of the narrator’s restless imagination. They, unlike almost any human character in the stories, feel real and solid, loping heedlessly into Hempel’s careful world of words and whims. And when they appear, the soft, shimmery sadness of Hempel’s work becomes deep and rich and palpable. Her dogs sniff at the margins of the stories, expanding them. The most accomplished work emotionally in this volume is “The Dog of the Marriage,” a series of four stories from Hempel’s most recent book of the same name.

The first one begins, “On the last night of the marriage…” It’s not an accident that the narrator—an unnamed, female first-person narrator, Hempel’s most characteristic storyteller—refers to “the” marriage rather than “my” marriage. In this one fragment of the first sentence, Hempel, with her laconic power, establishes so much of what the following story is about: possession and the impossibility of possession, and the finite boundaries of infinite love. In this achingly beautiful story, the narrator and her husband sit behind a blind man at the ballet, his guide dog lying beside him in the aisle. The dog moves his head back and forth, following the dancers as they move across the stage, and the poignancy of this image—the dog watching a performance that his master cannot see while the narrator watches the dog, blind to her own future—glides imperceptibly, confidently into a joke.

Every so often the dog would whimper slightly. “Because he can hear high notes we can’t?” my husband said. “No,” I said, “because he was disappointed in the choreography.”

The narrator works with guide dogs, pretraining them in basic obedience before they are whisked away to receive more specialized training. She keeps the dogs for one and half years before giving them up. She talks about the way dogs get to know you:

Not the way people do, the way people flatter you by wanting to know every last thing about you, only it isn’t a compliment, it is just efficient, a person getting more quickly to the end of you. Correction—dogs do want to know every last thing about you. They take in the smell of you, they know from the next room, asleep, when a mood settles over you. The difference is there’s not an end to it.

The end of the narrator’s marriage weaves in and out of her relationship to her dogs, relationships that are unending in their feeling yet finite in time and space, and if this sounds schematic, it is anything but. Hempel, in spite of the parallels, the wordplay, the loaded metaphors, is somehow the opposite of schematic, fashioning her stories with enough byways and turns and seemingly random details and encounters to suggest, in these tiny stories, the spaciousness of chance.

Counseling a volunteer who is angry about having to give up the guide dog she’s been training and who is worried that the dog will never get to swim again, the narrator tells her, “You know how dogs’ paws paddle in their sleep?” then adds, to the readers, “Dreams: the place most of us get what we need.” Earlier, Hempel has given the narrator a nightmare about swimming in a lake full of sharks, and even with the satisfaction she gets from her work, the narrator notes that “metaphorically” she is still in the lake

where I mourn my lost status as someone who doesn’t cause problems, and prove again that life is one long medley of prayers that we are not exposed, and try to convince myself that people who seem to suffer are not, in fact, unhappy, and want to be persuaded by the Japanese poem: “The barn burned down./Now I can see the moon.”

In this passage, Hempel journeys exquisitely from an angry volunteer (“Just because I’m not blind!” she cries) to this lyrical moment of Japanese poetry, and then, even more exquisitely, away from it. “Did I invite this?” the narrator asks.

It is like sitting in prayers at school when the headmistress says, “Who dropped lunch bags on the hockey field?” and although you went home for lunch, you think, I did, I did.

In the next section of “The Dog of the Marriage,” Hempel explicitly acknowledges the symmetry in her work, but, of course, this tiny story is far too complex, a map of spiraling roadways and paths, to be contained by simple parallels. “I was mindful of the symmetry—“ the narrator remarks as she approaches a stray dog in her yard, “trying to establish this creature’s trust, having dispatched that of my husband.” As in the first section with its guide dogs, there is a dog here too, this time the irresistible Beagleman, a stray beagle with the “look of a harried executive; he carried himself, chest first, like a little mogul.” And again, there is the husband who has left the marriage, this time a wholly absent figure. But the story is not about their lost marriage or even about the dog who has been found. That is only the premise for a deeply moving tale of the narrator’s friend Lynney and Lynney’s husband, who is himself lost because of a found dog, and of a lost marriage that lives on. The structure of this story is as refined and graceful as they come, almost too refined and graceful to be called structure, it feels so organic, and yet it is just one woman telling another woman about a third woman whose husband was hit by a car chasing after the stray dog they were considering adopting. It is all of five pages long.

When the narrator has finished telling the story of Beagleman the dog and Lynney and her husband to the friend she’s bumped into at the deli, the friend at the deli asks how Lynney is doing and the narrator replies, “It’s her story now.’” For Hempel, the dimensions of a story are not so much narrative as proprietary, the narrator as owner. Truth and fiction and the words we choose to describe them—these, at least, cannot be taken away, like husbands, like friends, like dogs, even devoted dogs. In the first of the “Dog of the Marriage” episodes, the narrator visits the whelping center and observes the puppies waiting to be trained as guide dogs:

I feel, here, optimistic, yet hopeful. Jubilant, yet happy. This is the way I thought and spoke for an irritating year as a girl, annoying the teachers at the girls’ school I attended. In school I was diligent, yet hardworking. The headmistress, I felt, was impartial, yet fair.

This is the brilliance of Amy Hempel, to find and occupy the space between words, fraught with contradiction, even when the words mean the same thing, the space between optimistic and hopeful. Her early stories, quiet and searching at the same time, were observations in both senses of the word—an act of perception and a comment on that act; observations, yet observations. These later stories, stories now of middle age, are sadder and even more beautifully wrought. A large collection like this one, four hundred pages long, containing almost fifty of the author’s stories, is often a trophy or a reference, a book that goes on the shelf. Writers do not compose fifty separate stories to be read in one gulp, and the stories do not usually benefit from that kind of gorging. But in Hempel’s collection, the stories seem, in the aggregate, to more closely resemble a wonderful rambling novel than the spare, tightly crafted prose poems she is known for. The book is generous, expansive: these stories grow on you.

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