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Leash on life: Darcy Cosper on Amy Hempel.




Amy Hempel makes other writers gibber. Mention her name in any company of fiction writers and those who have read her work--and inevitably they've read all her work--grow pale and weak-kneed and bright-eyed as feverish children. Her admirers range from Alice Munro to Chuck Palahniuk (who, like Hempel, studied writing with minimalism's great patron and self-proclaimed patriarch, Gordon Lish); in one worshipful essay, Palahniuk declares that the only possible response to Hempel's work is to "lie on the floor, face down, and praise it." I confess: I am among the prostrate.

It has been eight years since Hempel's acclaimed collection Tumble Home appeared, fifteen years since At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom was published (now out of print and available only on the rare book market, starting at $120), and two decades since her debut with the gorgeous Reasons to Live. In this time, Hempel, whose work is famously inventive and free of cliche, has done one distinctly unoriginal thing: She has grown older. Luckily for us, this seems to have refined or amplified her abilities. Her new collection of stories, The Dog of the Marriage, is markedly if subtly different from her previous works, not in form or style, but in tone. It's sterner, a little bleaker, plainerspoken but more complex; the sweet, loopy pathos, the wry and stealthy wit have evolved, have been transfigured, into something harder and purer--perhaps less likeable, but, as a consequence, even more admirable.

In Hempel's previous collections, most of the stories were written in the first person; that's also the case in The Dog of the Marriage, but Hempel here alters the use of it. In earlier works, the tone of the narration was similar from story to story but the narrators were quite distinct from one another--one woman watched over her terminally ill friend, another lingered in her house as it burned down, yet another fixated on a child's grave in a cemetery across the street from her home--and there was no mistaking one for another. Here, though each story presumably has a different narrator, and specifics of their situations vary, their voices, their sensibilities, are nearly identical, to the point that it sometimes seems as though the entire collection has a single narrator. In less sure hands this might appear to be an abdication of artistry, an exercise in self-indulgence--but the opposite is true. These stories are not autobiographical; they are oracular. Each has the urgent quality of confession, each is stripped down to telling detail and raw nerve, the writing so unadorned and direct as to make more traditional fiction seem artifice-ridden, rococo.

Several stories display the extreme brevity for which Hempel is known. The shortest of these, "Memoir," comprises a single sentence: "Just once in my life--oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?" Two others, each just over two pages long, are among the finest Hempel has produced. "Beach Town," in which a woman witnesses a marital infidelity and its aftereffects, features a first line so exemplary that, doubtless, MFA candidates will be made to parse its perfection for generations to come: "The house next door was rented for the summer to a couple who swore at missed croquet shots." "What Were the White Things" is a wonder of concision; in a few paragraphs Hempel says volumes about human nature and our mortal fears. The narrator is diagnosed with a disease that remains unnamed; she (I assume the gender, though none is specified) attends an artist's lecture and muses over the slide projections of his paintings, "Did he mean for us to be literal, to think: absence? He said the mind wants to make sense of a thing, the mind wants to know what something stands for." These words echo and multiply their meanings when, later in the story, the narrator stands in a radiologist's office, contemplating the projected image of her own body, the evidence of her illness.


The longer stories feature women who are, as the poet says, on the dangerous edge of things, and coming quietly unhinged. In "Jesus Is Waiting," a woman suffering through separation from a lover identified only as "the man who won't speak to me" tries the driving cure; going nowhere in particular--"no blue highways, nothing scenic"--from New York to Virginia, New Jersey to Maryland, she puts fifty thousand miles on her car in a year, and makes driving an art, an escape, a salvation. "The drive is determinedly a drive. Mostly it is just about the sounds of the car, of driving, of the fade-in and fade-out of the radio, the removal from everything but the moving body in a vehicle, of the is-ness of passing from here to there, of not being where you were." The driving, and the philosophies about it, and the blank, oblique way in which emotional pain is not referred to but indicated, recall Joan Didion's Play It as It Lays.

"The Uninvited," named for the classic ghost-story film that becomes the story's leitmotif, is about a woman taking a pregnancy test, and the circumstances that led to it. True to form, Hempel gives this shopworn scene a brutal twist ("If I was pregnant, I did not know who to blame--my husband, whom I did not live with, or the man in the auditorium, whom I did not report"), and the story's conclusion is the literary equivalent of a swift blow to the solar plexus.

In "The Afterlife," a young woman observes her widower father's excursions into courtship. In its tenderness, and in the distinct character of its narrator, this story feels more like Hempel's earlier work, complete with joyously tossed off one-liners. One character notes, "That's the trouble with people in general--you have to run into them." Another, invited to travel, says, "Darling, I don't go to the dining room anymore."

The anchors of the collection are two longer pieces: the title story, and the final piece, "Offertory." The latter is a sequel, of sorts, to the novella Tumble Home, which takes the form of a letter from the narrator, a young woman in residence at a mental hospital or some kind of recovery facility, to an older eminent painter of whom, though she has met him only once, she is enamored. Set about two years later, "Offertory" is the story of their affair, which comes to revolve around the stories the woman tells the man about a sexual dalliance she had, years earlier, with a married couple. While in certain respects this is the most interesting piece in the collection, with its metatextual explorations of the nature of narrative, it is perhaps the least successful. Those who haven't read Tumble Home might find references to the backstory confusing, and the denouement is so cryptic as to seem like a parody of the minimalist style.

"The Dog of the Marriage," on the other hand, feigns simplicity and straight-forwardness, but its effects are subtle, insidious, and frankly heartbreaking. (It also contains one of Hempel's best lines ever, an incisive comment on the urge to write and a sideways epigraph for the collection in toto: "Those who can't repeat the past are condemned to remember it.") Each of its four short sections features a woman, her dog or dogs, and the traces of an ex-husband. In one, a woman whose husband left her after she had an affair, works at a facility training guide dogs for the blind; in another, a divorced woman consults a psychic in an attempt to find her lost pet. In the brusque but unbitter depiction of such double losses, and of the poignant differences between the love of animals and human beings, Hempel shines.

The women in this title story are, I believe, four different women--as the women in every story in the collection are different--but Hempel has chosen not to individuate them; identifying details are dispensed with almost entirely. It's as if she has deemed the particulars of any given story irrelevant when set against the emotional verities that emerge in their absence. As the narrator of "Offertory" says, describing the manner in which her lover required that stories be told: "Names were not the details that mattered to him. What mattered was the most refined particularity of our actions, and the declarative nature of my narrative. He did not want me to use language that said anything other than what it was."

This is as fine a definition of minimalism as any, and adherence to its rigors has made Hempel's career to date. (Later, when the narrator's lover praises her storytelling, she notes, "I was aware of the point at which a compliment becomes a trap, because you are expected to keep doing the thing you are praised for; resentment will follow when you stop.") With The Dog of the Marriage, Hempel has done minimalism's mandates one better. She dispenses with not merely the conceits of "character" and "voice," but ego as well. These stories are transparent, absolute essence--impersonal but alarmingly intimate, like glimpses into houses made of magnifying glass.

Darcy Cosper is a frequent contributor to Bookforum and a columnist for the Journal News. Her first novel, Wedding Season, was published last year by Three Rivers Press.
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Title Annotation:The Dog of the Marriage; book
Author:Cosper, Darcy
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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