Art Of The Short Story - Amy Hempel - Book Review
“I’m basically going to Bennington so I can stalk Amy Hempel and try to become her,” I told another writer before I started my MFA program at the Bennington Writing Seminars, where renowned short story writer Amy Hempel teaches. “You and everyone else,” he said; he was right. During my first term, my friend Ellen came over excitedly in the dining hall as I was getting my food. “Girl,” she said, breathing hard, “Amy Hempel just invited us to have dinner with her!” Amy, known dog lover, asked to see pictures of our fur babies and the three of us bonded over our shared love of dogs. I was trying my hardest to contain my excitement and not gush how much I loved Amy’s short stories (I’d read them all). As we left the dining hall, Ellen said, “Excuse me while I go die now!” We just had an actual conversation with the brilliant and talented author we loved and she was just as kind and magnanimous in person! In fact, her humility was refreshing, considering that she’s one of the most celebrated short story writers of the late 20th century, at least among writers. She’s won the PEN/Malamud Award, the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Ambassador Book Award for Best Fiction, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among others. Her readings were always one of the more well-attended events at Bennington, and for good reason. I loved getting to hear her read work from her first collection more than a decade before its publication in the spring of 2019.
If you asked me the impossible question of what my favorite book is, I’d cheat and say Amy Hempel’s Collected Stories (2007), which includes her full collections, Reasons to Live (1985), At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1986), Tumble Home (1997), and The Dog of the Marriage (2005). Hempel’s collected works is a book I’ve come back to again and again while writing my own short stories. I often find myself rereading her sentences, marveling in her use of language and subtle profundity. She starts “Cloudland” with the enigmatic opener, “I remember thinking: There will never come a time when I will not be thinking of this. And I was right. And I was wrong,” immediately drawing me in. The thing that always strikes me is Hempel’s economy of space, how her short short works—sometimes little more than a paragraph—always pack a punch.
Her highly-anticipated fifth collection, Sing to It (Scribner, 2019) does not disappoint.
The fifteen-story collection is a slim 144 pages, but every word is purposeful. The title story comes in at just 116 words, launching the reader into the strange and unexpected worlds Hempel creates. Her stories are never straight-forward, never quite what they seem. I often find myself rereading and picking up a little more each time.
Some of Hempel’s stories, including “Sing to It,” the title story of her most recent collection, read like poems and are little more than a few lines, and yet they stick with you. The story concludes, “So—at the end, I made my hands a hammock for him. / My arms the trees.” Like most of her stories, what it appears to be about isn’t really what it’s about. This very short story is about an unnamed person (friend, relative, lover?) dying and the narrator struggling with it and hiding in metaphors. “At the end, I wanted to comfort him,” she writes, “But what I said was, So to It. The Arab proverb: when danger approaches, sing to it.”
And this collection does, in fact, sing.
As usual, this collection features animals, particularly dogs, one of Hempel’s (and my) obsessions. At Bennington, she was famously offered the position shortly after the program started 25 years ago, and said she’d only take it if she could bring her dogs. Thus, began the faculty house known as “the Dog House” and the faculty “Dog House Band” that plays on the penultimate night of each residency. When we had dinner, Amy told Ellen and me that the house she’d bought wasn’t her favorite that she’d looked at, but it was one-story so her elderly dog could get around. We both agreed that we’re the kind of people to pick our houses based on our dogs’ needs. Amy writes of dogs with a particular fondness, a deep humanity.
For short story lovers, Amy Hempel’s writing is a kind of church, something to worship.
I read it and think, “I wish I could write like that.”
Hempel is one of the few writers who (for me) can get away with writing a story that’s not really about anything, that pushes the limits of what a story is and can do. “Four Calls in the Last Half Hour,” for example, is a page-and-a-half of ambiguity. At no point is the reader sure what it’s about. The protagonist doesn’t even show up until the last sentence. It leaves you scratching your head but impressed.
I was a little disappointed that, in my two years at the Bennington Writing Seminars, I never got to study with Amy. I put Amy as my number one faculty choice with whom I’d work one-on-one every semester, as did most of the other fiction students. You’re guaranteed to get your top choice at least one term, and because I’d gotten my fourth choice in the previous term, I was told I’d get my first choice for my third term. When the faculty list came out, I was disappointed to see Amy had taken the term off, but excited when I saw Claire Vaye Watkins—another favorite of mine—and had a great term working with her. So, in the end, I’m no Amy Hempel, but still, I’ve learned so much from her writing, and her latest collection is no exception.
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About The Blogger
Erika Nichols-Frazer is a freelance writer and editor, as well as the part-time Communications Manager at the Children’s Literacy Foundation. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She won Noir Nation’s 2019 Golden Fedora fiction prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in HuffPost, Literary Orphans, Noir Nation, Lunate, OC87 Recovery Diaries, Please Do Not Remove: A Collection Celebrating Vermont Literature and Libraries, and elsewhere. She is a reader for Literary Orphans. She lives in Vermont.
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