This week marks the release of Amy Hempel’s Sing to It, her first book in over a decade.
In the first story I submitted to a writing workshop, I included, in my naive twenty-something state, a scene in which a male and female character get close following a party. The manuscript was a mess of overly florid metaphors, and it included the following sentence: “He touched her arm lightly.” The class’s teacher, the short-fiction writer Amy Hempel, gave it back to me swimming in black ink and annotations. “Touching isn’t cheap,” she offered gently, in response to my clunky familiarities. On the question of the metaphors she was bolder: “Nothing’s like anything else,” she suggested to the group.
Nothing’s like anything else. Hempel’s prose is so blanched of needless embellishment that it can take on the corrosive sting of disinfectant. It refuses to accommodate comfort, or the familiar narratives we use to buffer our existences—“the stories we tell ourselves in order to live.” And yet, not cold, it brims with earthy, prosaic humor. Hempel’s comedy is the kind derived from finding typos on hospital menus or taking detours to IKEA stores.
Amy Hempel’s own first short story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” was the product of a writing class she took with Gordon Lish, the iconic editor of Raymond Carver, Mary Robison, and Christine Schutt. Lish had asked his students to write the story that would most “dismantle” their sense of self; “Al Jolson,” an unsentimental portrayal of a dear friend dying too young, was Hempel’s response. What emerges is the outline of a voice cratered and undone by loss, a voice in withdrawal. It is a voice haloed by omissions and wide margins, by white space on the page.
Though white space has become something of a literary fetish, Hempel’s practice of retention is unmotivated by the glittering appeal of cool. Her ellipses are elegant, yet also somehow generous: she always presumes the reader “is dying to get away” from her, as she notes in her interview with The Paris Review. The lines which are permitted to appear are often devoted to dogs (a Hempel staple), minor encounters, and quotidian events such as barbecues and children’s birthday parties—the “blessings of dailiness,” as she puts it in her 1997 novella Tumble Home. Her broader interests are in off-pitch, off-kilter, imperfect voices: those which falter at the edge of phatic, empty language or small talk. “You want to be underneath the bleachers in a story,” she told the class. “Looking for what’s left.”
In her 2005 story collection The Dog of the Marriage, this offstage writing persona is exercised in pieces such as “Beach Town,” where the narrator observes a disintegrating marriage through the white pine fence of a couple’s vacation house, or “The Afterlife,” in which a daughter watches her father start dating again after her mother’s death: “What he inhabited now was a kind of afterlife: not dead, but not alive to possibility.” Hempel possesses a quiet knowledge that so few writers—particularly in these times of restless self-promotion—understand: the most interesting material happens to the side of the ego’s orbit, rather than within its furnace.
Though they are not cushioned by the bolsters that typically comprise identity—names, ages, and sometimes even gender—Hempel’s narrators are alive. They are restless and imperfect. They are given to long, aimless drives; sudden moves across the country; and fractured love affairs. In “Offertory,” the opening line is as sexy as it is elusive: “We did it twelve times—made love, all of us, to one another twelve times, the two of them doing everything two people could do to me twelve times.” The narrator’s lover—an older, successful male artist, who also appears enigmatically in Tumble Home—becomes obsessed with her (brief) past history with women, and insists she showcase every detail for him: “The rule was I had to tell him the truth, and I had to tell him everything.” Such a dynamic starts to wear on the narrator, permitting Hempel to suggest that sometimes telling the whole story is neither an interesting, nor particularly altruistic, act. The refusal of metaphor here becomes an ethical, rather than aesthetic choice: to superimpose one singular experience over another might be to bludgeon both with the violence of comparison.
On the clumsy manuscript where I had made efforts to distill the waning end of an affair, Hempel recommended that I read Lydia Davis’s standout novel in the genre, The End of the Story. Davis’s work overlaps with Hempel’s in its acidity, and, in Rick Moody’s words, “haiku-like compaction.” Davis is seen as the foremost living practitioner of the challenging “one-sentence story,” though some of Hempel’s are so finely calibrated as to stun. “Memoir,” also from The Dog of the Marriage, is possibly her most notorious (the full sum of the story is: “Just once in my life—oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?”)
This week sees the publication of Hempel’s Sing to It, her first book in over a decade (in 2006, her stories were anthologized in The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel). The prepositional to, embedded in the title, already feels significant. While her stories radiate with emptiness, they do not take place in a vacuum. There is always an address, somebody to whom the writing is directed. The title piece, which echoes the premise of “Al Jolson,” a narrator trying to comfort a dying friend, displays both the banality and the transcendence of the “end” in under two hundred words of stirring, rhythmic verse. “Cloudland,” which, at sixty-two pages, is closer to a novella, follows a woman who, as a teenager, surrendered her child to adoption: “It’s been how many years, and I see her—the girl I never saw—wherever I go. I never made a list, and don’t keep count of the number of times I see her. But man, she gets around.” “A Full Service Shelter,” displacing Hempel’s usual penchant for the first person, is composed from the perspective of neglected dogs about to be put down in animal shelters.
Such stories continue Hempel’s career-long excavation of the blunt brutalities of intimacy, but they also show how, through language, we find glimmers of connection. Touching isn’t cheap. Sometimes all that’s possible is a gesture in intimacy’s vague direction. In that grasping, space is made between the subjects and the objects of a sentence. Sharper truths are chiseled. And there is no fumbling.
Alice Blackhurst is a writer and research fellow at Cambridge University. She studied fiction writing with Amy Hempel at Harvard in 2011.