Authors: Amy Hempel and Rick Moody
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Reasons to Live
copyright © 1985 by Amy Hempel
At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom
copyright © 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990 by Amy Hempel
copyright © 1997 by Amy Hempel
The Dog of the Marriage
copyright © 2005 by Amy Hempel
“On Amy Hempel” copyright © 2006 by Rick Moody
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
These titles were previously published individually.
and design are trademarks of Macmillan Library Reference USA, Inc. used under license by Simon & Schuster, the publisher of this work.
DESIGNED BY ERICH HOBBING
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
[Short stories. Selections]
The collected stories of Amy Hempel / Amy Hempel; with an introduction by Rick Moody.
Contents: Reasons to live—At the gates of the animal kingdom—Tumble home—The dog of the marriage
1. United States—Social life and customs—Fiction. I. Title.
constitutes an extension of the copyright page.
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To Nan Graham
It’s all about the sentences. It’s about the way the sentences move in the paragraphs. It’s about rhythm. It’s about ambiguity. It’s about the way emotion, in difficult circumstances, gets captured in language. It’s about instants of consciousness. It’s about besieged consciousness. It’s about love trouble. It’s about death. It’s about suicide. It’s about the body. It’s about skepticism. It’s against sentimentality. It’s against cheap sentiment. It’s about regret. It’s about survival. It’s about the sentences used to enact and defend survival.
In 1985, when Amy Hempel’s first collection
Reasons to Live
was first published, we found ourselves in the heady period of the American short-story renaissance. However briefly, it was not only acceptable to write and publish short stories (there were many more venues for them in that bygone time), but it was even possible to sell a few copies of your collection along the way. Some of this had to do with the notable Vintage Contemporaries line of paperback short fiction, which brought us, in its first seasons, such voices as Richard Ford, Jay McInerney, and Raymond Carver. Some of this had to do with the editorial vision of one Gordon Lish, as keen and vigorous a proponent of literary fiction as has existed in the last fifty years. In the course of his ascendancy, he had the temerity of purpose to bring to light writers like Carver, Barry Hannah, Mary Robison, and Amy Hempel, among many others.
I was in graduate school in this heady moment. I was in my second year of graduate school when Hempel’s first collection hit shelves (and along with
by Lorrie Moore, it was one of the books that everyone wanted to read at the time). I was exhibiting symptoms of boredom and impatience with most of the
examples of contemporary fiction. I couldn’t sympathize, finally, with Ford and McInerney characters. I had never punched another man, nor shot a bird from the sky, nor had I fact-checked among the coke-snorting glitterati. And these narratives by male writers seemed to
complicity with their larger-than-life protagonists.
Then came the Hempel collection. As with Lorrie Moore, the Hempel stories were urbane, witty, somber, dazzling, oblique, and quietly, desperately heroic. In
Reasons to Live,
one had a sense that the author really
trying to use sentences to save lives, because there were so many memorable, quotable sentences hiding in the occasionally inscrutable fragments of life contained therein: “A blind date is coming to pick me up, and unless my hair grows an inch by seven o’clock, I am not going to answer the door.” Or: “In the park, I saw a dog try to eat his own shadow, and another dog—I am sure of it—was herding a stand of elms.” Or: “Here’s a trick I found for how to finally get some sleep. I sleep in my husband’s bed. That way the empty bed I look at is my own.”
These Hempel sentences, with their longing and their profound disquiet, do not rage or posture the way the men of the minimalist realist period did. They ache. And this ache seems to have everything to do with a rather profound and cruelly underestimated lineage of women writers in North America, writers in many cases much
important than their male counterparts, among them Grace Paley, Mary Robison, Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, Joy Williams, Cynthia Ozick, and Ann Beattie.
Well, to put it another way: Hempel, in this first collection, came out from under Paley’s skirt, if I can manhandle an Ernest Hemingway reference, but she also became her own thing. Where Paley’s voice has everything to do with the New York City of the first half of the twentieth century, and its slangy Yiddishisms, Hempel’s voice has something to do with stand-up comedy, contemporary poetry, celebrity magazines, visual arts, the West, and the popular song. (Poetry especially becomes more and more of an influence on her nearly Japanese compaction the further along she goes in her work.)
At the time of publication,
Reasons to Live
was noteworthy for one overpowering story, a story which, at this late date, is known to almost all enthusiasts of recent short fiction, since it is anthologized frequently. The story in question is named “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” Though the narrative frame of this composition is accessible enough—the narrator tries to buoy the spirits of a dying friend through the distraction of the well-turned anecdote—it’s the violations of well-made story structure and conventionally “literary values” that make the story even more lasting: “Make it useless stuff or skip it,” the dying friend says at the outset (perhaps a manifesto for Hempel’s mulch of popular culture and high literature), and the narrator complies: “Did she know that Tammy Wynette had changed her tune? Really. That now she sings ‘Stand by Your
’? That Paul Anka did it, too, I said. Does ‘You’re Having
Baby.’ That he got sick of all that feminist bitching.”
“Al Jolson” is a gem in a volume that while possessed of bounteous moments of transfiguration (I like, for example, the lovely conversation between a father and his children about Jell-O in “Celia Is Back,” or Wesley the world-weary comedian in “Three Popes Walk into a Bar”) is the
of a great career rather than its finest hour. I’d go so far as to say that
Reasons to Live
looks like a sweet but quaint memory in the brilliant light of Hempel’s next book,
At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom
(1990). It’s true that it took Hempel five years to write the 137 pages of the second volume of stories, and it’s true that this was actually
for her (
took seven years, and
The Dog of the Marriage
took eight), but when the results are as pitch-perfect and unforgettable as “The Harvest,” or “The Most Girl Part of You,” or “Rapture of the Deep,” all of them stunners from the second volume, who really gives a shit how long the book takes or whether it’s shorter than one of those big encyclopedic tomes that the boys, obsessed with the sound of their own voices, were frequently writing in the same period? When “The Harvest” first came out in Gordon Lish’s
I remember being arrested not only by the broad course of the story (of the narrator’s massive car accident) itself, but most especially by the double-space break in the middle, after which the following appeared: “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.” The narrative then goes on to undercut virtually every trustworthy assertion made in its prior pages, doing a merry dance of destruction on the grave of the realistic fiction, conjuring instead the many illuminating paradoxes of consciousness and identity. Only a scant few works of contemporary fiction have done the same with such grace and style.
By the time
(1997)—Hempel’s third book—emerged into the light of day, the short-story renaissance of the middle eighties was six feet under, and many of the best venues for the publication of this time-honored form were interred in the mausoleum of literary nostalgia. Hempel, like Paley before her, and perhaps in reply to the literary politics of the moment, began to attempt to reckon with longer work. The result was the novella-length title story of her third collection. The leap in mastery, in seriousness, and sheer literary purpose was inspiring to behold.
It’s the natural trajectory of a writing career that a writer becomes better at being herself. If Hempel, in
Reasons to Live,
despite her great comic timing and her unflappable need to whistle in the graveyard, had skills most of us will never ever hope to have, the first book nonetheless had certain things in common with the literary zeitgeist of the eighties. Yet in
with its obsessive concentration on loss and romantic disaffiliation, with its oblique despair and its brokenhearted comic couplets, Hempel sounds like no one else on earth but Amy Hempel. Hempel the miniaturist. Hempel the enemy of causality. Hempel the cataloguer of phobias. Hempel the animal philosopher. She gave up willful contemporaneity, and instead she allowed the mask of a perfect surface to drop a little bit so that the raw, troubled landscape underneath could rise up in its place.
Which is to say that “Tumble Home,” the story, represented a new zenith in a career that already had many, many high points, and if the reading public had, as it does now and again, turned some of its attention away from the implicit challenge of short fiction, not to mention the novella, the loss was theirs. In “Tumble Home,” the narrator addresses an absent lover directly, from institutional confines, her tired voice given mainly to the little amusements of her daily life, though much around her is about suffering and the attempt to recover from it: “The other day I was playing Scrabble with Karen. I saw that I could close the space in D-E- -Y. I had an N and an F. Which do you think I chose?” The unspeakable tragedy that is just offscreen in “Tumble Home,” a mother’s suicide, is of such magnitude that the story is bent by its force, and yet the narrator’s insistence on attempting levity in the face of this legacy makes her, and the story itself, that much
electrifying: “So a lot of the time it’s moisturizers and accessories, physical fitness and hair. And still so many ways to go wrong, as when I said to Chatty, hadn’t she colored her hair, and Chatty’s frosty reply that she had not
her hair, she had
the book, with its stately and proud first-person narrators, set the bar very high indeed for Amy Hempel. One can think only of the great European voices, of Kleist or Chekhov. And yet
The Dog of the Marriage
(2005), the fourth collection by Amy Hempel, is even better than the other three. It’s a triumph, in fact. For the first time, Hempel turns her attention toward carnality, toward sexuality itself, and since the excisions, the margins, in Hempel stories have often been as telling as what occurs within, it must have required significant resolve on her part to allow her characters, for the first time, to take off their clothes.
It’s perhaps not unfair at this point to let the reader in on a secret known about the author of these stories, namely that at the time of this composition, Amy Hempel, writer of luminous short fiction, is also embarked on the study of
at a regional citadel of criminal justice education. When faced with the entirety of the output of Hempel—with the movement of it down through the upper layers of psychology into the mystery of physiognomy—how predictable is this side interest of the author’s! One is reminded, for example, of a moment in “Tumble Home”: “Not everything I know is something I want to see. Though on highways, and, once, on a mountain road, I have strained to see things I didn’t want to see. The worst I ever saw was a body without a head.” And there are many such other instances, instances when the body is rent open in the search for identity, the car crash in “The Harvest,” the cemetery with the dead baby in it (“The Annex”), and on and on.
That is, Hempel’s materialism (another way of saying realism) is manifest in her intense need to attempt to locate identity in the body, to keep prying away at the body to see if the emotions are located in a specific spot therein, no matter how violent or frustrating the endeavor. With Hempel, it’s just as in the Enlightenment, an era obsessed with finding the physical seat of the soul: “Look at me. My concerns—are they spiritual, do you think, or carnal? Come on. We’ve read our Shakespeare. ‘There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face.’” Hempel both wants to
(there is the unbidden tolling of religious language in these stories), and hates the gobbledygook of anything but flesh.
And thus the bedroom. Marriages are relentlessly falling apart throughout
The Dog of the Marriage,
and pregnancies are ending badly, and pets vanish or are killed, and all of this dissolution is intolerable and overwhelming, until we get to the story called “Offertory.” Essentially a sequel to “Tumble Home,” in which the painter of the earlier novella (the recipient of that narrator’s direct address epistle) is here embodied once more in a carnally voracious lover, now directly engaged with the delicate first-person speaker of Hempel’s later efforts. He’s the lover who would have her tell him stories of her carnal escapades. The narrator, like the author herself, is an adept in the telling, and she provides a wealth of details: “And when I really could not remember what happened the tenth time, I made something up. I made up something I guessed would be what he wanted. For example, he wanted to know when the husband was with us both at once, whose name did he cry out when he came? He asked for the tenderest time, the most violent time, the most nonchalant time, the classiest time, the first and the last time, all twelve times.” Besides being one of the most erotic stories in contemporary literature, “Offertory” is incredibly sad, and very revealing about all the hardship that transpires between men and women. It seems to me that with the possible exception of Mary Gaitskill, no one has written as well about sex and identity in thirty or forty years.
Who is it who writes these stories and makes this brave journey into the forensic psychology of everyday life? She came from Chicago, grew up in the Denver area, had an early life with no shortage of trouble, went to high school in Chicago, went to California to be a journalist, knocked around Haight-Ashbury in the late sixties, couldn’t finish school, tried to be pre-med, worked as a veterinarian’s assistant. Faced a lot of death in the family. Had a number of automobile accidents. Avoided flying. Put off buying a computer. Later, she was married for a time. She made a living teaching, and spent a lot of time volunteering with seeing-eye dogs. Not a terribly unusual story, as far as American lives go, and the author, who is gracious, self-effacing, and endlessly generous, never advertises much about it.