Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Dog of the Marriage by Amy Hempel

When I was a freshmen in my second workshop ever and was feeling horribly intimidated by the professor (Joyce Carol Oates, who to this day terrifies me) as well as feeling completely inadequate compared to my classmates, I read the short story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel. And suddenly I felt like maybe, just maybe, I could do that. The story’s voice made me ache and the precision of each sentence made me horribly jealous, but the structure—snapshots, short sentences, short short story—seemed accessible, doable. And so I did it. I wrote an absolute imitation, which became to my joy and my horror (it’s sooo derivative) the first story I ever published. I’ve never since modeled my writing so closely on that of another writer, but it was a breakthrough moment for me, like the day when I suddenly had control on a tennis court. Ever since I have had an off-and-on affair with Amy Hempel’s writing.

At Bread Loaf I heard her read from her newest collection The Dog in the Marriage and I was in love all over again. Her precision is unbeatable. Her use of anecdotes and metaphors to illustrate her understated plots is totally her own (except when I steal it, of course). And yet my response to most of the stories in this collection—the title story, the one I heard her read from is the exception—was that they are too short. I like poetry, I like short-short fiction (sudden fiction, micro fiction, whatever you want to call it), I’m not inherently opposed to shortness—but it seems that the moment of cut-off, the moment I am ejected from the story has to be so perfectly right in a short-short that it becomes very hard to pull off. In each case, I was happy with the story until it was done, when I thought, but we haven’t gotten there yet. So the question is: where is there? What is the perfect end—I think for me it’s when the story has gone one step—emotionally or intellectually—deeper then I thought it could. If Hempel could end each story in a moment when the story has turned—as opposed to at a moment that feels consistent with the rest of the story—maybe that would work more powerfully. But then maybe the answer is more mysterious and less formulaic then that – hard to say, of course. In the end, this is a decent example, sometimes a great example, of how the shortest of stories can get you to feel as much as the longest of stories. For me, the most powerful of Hempel’s collections remains the one I read first (and surely that has something to do with my response): Reasons to Live, which contains one of my favorite epigraphs in all of literature: “Because grief unites us,/like the locked antlers of moose/who die on their knees in pairs.” (William Matthews)