The Lonely Nature of Episodic Existence

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel

The cliche when reviewing the work of New York City writer Amy Hempel is to praise her sentences, to turn in orbit on her tell-tale calling card turns of phrase, to always take pains that the praise lays on the concise wit of what she says. Though not without merit, and certainly not undeserved, this criticism should be put to assay, for we may look at her incontrovertible appeal in another, perhaps more proper, way.

The appeal of the writing of Amy Hempel is inherent in its shocking accessibility, the surprise of the moment when the prosaic narration makes the concatenation of outwardly unrelated cause and effect a matter of fact, the only available taxonomy of the world the narrator describes, if the reader were to be held faithful to the evidences her narrators make available, despite the oft disconcerting, nearly non-sequitur-esque jumps between squirm-inducing memories or events and the emotionless realizations that make up a person’s duties as curator and office manager of the independent self.

There, in the cuts between the realms of adjacent sentences, therein the reader will find the factor that cements the appeal of Hempel’s writing. The quality of the sentences that leaves readers in a reel is the brutality of distanced adjacency.

from April 27th 2006 Powell’s interview: “I don’t know that I’m not good at as much as I’m not interested in the big picture in any given story. I like the moment the thing changes. I like the aftermath of the big event more than I like to portray the event itself.”

It is because of the reward the reader feels following along with her often ill-elucidated mise-en-scenes when the endorphins and hormones drop from the normally responsible hand of the all-controlling ego to the carpet of the bloodstream that Hempel is able to bring us along to the aftermath of her events. Lesser writers would have to explain themselves, would be chastised for opening a story mid-plot and never stopping to fill the reader in. It is because of this that I think it is possible that Hempel misrepresents herself in- or that the reader could misread the meaning of- the quote from the Powell’s interview above. She absolutely does love the aftermath of the event more than she prefers to describe it, but she is more intent on illiciting the aftermath of the event, the reaction, in the reader than writing it.

The aftermath of all events in Hempel’s stories are emotional, internal, ruminative. The solitary and terrible matter-of-factness with which her narrators deliver their deadpan realizations or conclusions is bell-jar like. Lonely. The reason Hempel can avoid laying out every architectural detail of the physical aspects of one of her stories is that they are meant to function as memories, they are meant to knock the wind out of us using the same internal cues our memories might- they are stories told as we remember our own stories. Milemarkers are stuck haphazardly along the mutable forks of the paths and they show nadirs and acmes of fear, love, hate, surprise, disappointment. It’s how she circumvents heeding her own discouragement below, taken from the the same Powell’s interview referenced above:

“Why are you telling me this? Someone out there will be asking, and you better have a very compelling answer, or reason.

There are people who have been raised by loving parents to believe that the world awaits their every thought and sentence, and I’m not one of them. So I respond to that. Is this essential? The question might be, Is this something only you can say—or, only you can say it this way? Is this going to make anyone’s life better, or make anyone’s day better? And I don’t mean the writer’s day.”

Hempel’s characters move in montages of huge snippeted group conversations among old friends and easy neighbors and intuited, half-described, alluded revelations of internal significance. On the first page of the novella Tumble Home contained in this collection, she sums up her guiding principle, or the concept the awareness of and the struggle with which guides her writing:

If I understand it, the Western Tradition is this: Put your cards on the table.


This is easier , I think, when your life has been tipped over and poured out. Things matter less; there is the joy of being less polite, and of being less– not more– careful. We can say everything.

Although maybe not. Like in fishing? The lighter the line, the easier it is to get your lure down deep. (233)

Hempel writes straight ahead, finishing most of her stories in a single stroke, leaving the impression that each one was more like a single extended coup de grace than a telling of events yoking the service of more than one set of punctuation marks. The loneliness of the world of dying friends, remembrances of near-drownings on illicit escapades with married men, the obsessively compulsive companionship of dogs, the solitude of coming to conclusions while mired in quotidian tasks or old age: these intimate the actions and the chronologically verb-laden events that predicate the pen coming to paper. She withholds nothing of importance in her brevity. That she struggles with the appearance of a simple, resigned retelling of the tortures of the many kinds of solitude a human being can experience and wish to alleviate speaks the silences and gaps and pauses and cuts not hopeless, but tellable, personable. The stories are sad, but for this author are points of connection.