The Collected Stories by Amy Hempel
I leave a lot out when I tell the truth. The same when I write a story. I’m going to start now to tell you what I left out of “The Harvest” and maybe begin to wonder why I had to leave it out.
These lines, about halfway through “The Harvest,” one of Amy Hempel’s most anthologized stories, turn a young woman’s account of a car accident into a co-conspiracy. Quickly, abruptly, they shift the point of view from the young woman to Hempel, the writer herself now reconstructing the event, pulling apart the story she just built fact by fact:
There was no other car. There was only the one car, the one that hit me when I was on the back of the man’s motorcycle. But think of the awkward syllables when you have to say motorcycle … The man of the week, whose motorcycle it was, was not a married man. But when you thought he had a wife, wasn’t I liable to do anything? And didn’t I have it coming?
Hempel’s interests here, language and the moral position of women, are what initially drew me into her meticulously constructed world. The four story collections that make up The Collected Stories are loaded with tightly packed accounts that revisit similar themes—death, intimacy, womanhood—with quick, precise turns. At the same time, they’re unstable, with shifting points of view and eerie surroundings—graveyards out back doors, open roads, Stepford homes. Hempel is attuned to the off-kilter word used just right, comparing a first kiss to “maggots in ashes,” or having a character follow a “threat of conversation.”
These stories are timely, too. Even though the most recent collection, The Dog of the Marriage, was first published over a decade ago, the shifting truth, the inability to provide one true truth, in stories like “The Harvest” resonates today in our time of alternate facts and fake news. A certain “Donald Trump” even makes a passing, pre-presidential appearance, believe it or not.
Hempel began writing fiction in the mid-seventies when she enrolled in a nighttime class at Columbia University taught by journalist and fiction writer, Gordon Lish. In her twenties, she worked in journalism and publishing, which she says was her way of circling close without jumping in, describing her journalistic intuition as guiding her as she began to move into fiction:
Obviously, in journalism, you’re confined to what happens. And the tendency to embellish, to mythologize, it’s in us. It makes things more interesting, a closer call. But journalism taught me how to write a sentence that would make someone want to read the next one … Some writers feel that when they write, there are people out there who just can’t wait to hear everything they have to say. But I go in with the opposite attitude, the expectation that they’re just dying to get away from me.
Often categorized as a minimalist and associated with writers like Barry Hannah, Raymond Carver, Mary Robinson, Gary Lutz, and Lydia Davis, Hempel is one of the few American writers who has made a career purely out of short stories. Her longest piece, a novella titled “Tumble Home,” runs 68 pages in this collection. Most are around three. “Tumble Home” is not structured like a novel either; it’s a letter from a character in an asylum or hospital to an artist they admire. Many of Hempel’s stories are written in first-person and her narrators go unnamed, amplifying the characteristic ambiguity and disorienting proximity of her writing. “There are more possibilities when you don’t pin down a person with a name and an age and a background,” she describes in a 1997 BOMB interview, “because then people can bring something to them or take something from them.”
Her writing, filled with characters often suffering through a death or other serious loss, is based largely on her own life. Her mother committed suicide when she was young, which she recreates in “Tom-Rock Through the Eels,” while the first story she ever wrote, “In The Cemetery When Al Johnson is Buried,” is about one of her closest friends dying from cancer. The sadness at the core of the latter story, though, is really centered on the narrator’s inability to be supportive for her dying friend. The human relationships Hempel depicts are brutal, often stunted by competition or an inability to communicate. She sees redemption in animals, especially dogs, which she says, “don’t hide from real feeling behind sarcasm or irony,” and they act as mediating forces and characters in these stories.
However, the most jarring interactions The Collected Stories depicts are between men and women. In the book’s first story, “Tonight is a Favor to Holly,” two young women live together in a dirty beach town where there are two types of men, “those who are going under and those who aren’t moving ahead.” They spend their days driving around the beach “doing research” as one says, and one of their exes still “stops by when he’s in town, and we pretend he’s welcome.” There is sexual tension between the women but they never discuss it or talk openly about their friendship. They express their relationship, rather, through their interactions with, or reactions to, men.
Hempel revisits variations of this dynamic throughout The Collected Stories, portraying women being manipulated or even abused by men, but who are then expected—often by other women—to put the man’s needs first, to accept what happened, to calm down. In many cases, Hempel can be quite blunt about how society caters to male egos over female autonomy. “And Lead Us Not Into Penn Station” includes the frank and sharp reminder: “Women who are attacked phone a hotline for advice. ‘Don’t report a rape,’ women are told. ‘Call it an indecent exposure. A guy who takes it out and doesn’t do anything with it—cops figure that guy is sick.’” Her stories construct families and friendships that put men’s needs first, at times subversively needling at and at others forthrightly questioning why we do this.
Balancing the weight of these hefty subjects with deft humor, Hempel is a master of subtle double meanings, a pointed word spoken at just the right time. She scrutinizes aspects of comedy, and in a 2010 VICE interview admitted she has even taken pointers from comedians like Steve Martin and Mark O’Donnell, a former writer for Saturday Night Live. She focuses like a stand-up comic on the way each sentence sounds, to make the joke hit or get the sound just right:
When I write a story, the acoustics of the sentences and the rhythms of the single sentences are so important. I’m strongly influenced by music….music is so important to me that I will substitute a word that gives a sentence a masculine instead of a feminine ending. They think about this in poetry more than in fiction, normally, but I borrow a lot of poetry concerns when I’m writing. It almost doesn’t matter what the words are, it’s the sound that produces the effect.
Hempel’s writing brings that cadence and music to some of the darkest subjects humans can face. Whatever the effect, it works, and keeps on working, and will keep readers coming back to The Collected Stories for a long time to come.–Claire Mullen