Short Story Month, Day 16: On Amy Hempel
During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from writer Jamie Quatro.
A few years ago, my kindergarten son and I conducted a science experiment. We had to lift an ice cube from a glass of water using only a piece of unwaxed dental floss. We were not allowed to touch the cube, the glass, or the water. We tried using the string to scoop the cube out from underneath. This didn’t work. We tried pushing it underwater with the string, making it bob; perhaps it would bounce out? Again, failure. Eventually I did the only thing any intelligent, self-respecting parent would do: I emailed the teacher.
The secret was salt. When we laid the floss across the top of the ice cube and salted it, the string melted into the cube. We could then lift it from the glass. My son used up the rest of our salt lifting cubes from glasses, and I came away with what I thought was a perfect metaphor for Amy Hempel’s genius: her ability to bring a submerged truth to the surface without touching the thing itself. Saying it without saying it: when I read an Amy Hempel story, this is the first thing I notice about her style. In “The Uninvited,” the narrator tells us she had an abortion in the line “I was a girl again.” We learn she was raped in a single sentence: “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, who I did not report.” Entire stories, like “San Francisco” and “Going,” deal with the death of a loved one without ever mentioning the death itself. It is as if the story—the event—is the invisible centerpiece around which the table is laid; as if Hempel peels off the template around the sticker and shows us the borders, so that the sticker becomes visible in its margins.
In “Al Jolson,” we learn that the friend has hours to live with the line, “There was a second bed in the room when I got back to it!” And in the next two sentences, the narrator articulates her own (and the reader’s) response: “For two beats I didn’t get it. Then it hit me like an open coffin.” Like an open coffin—the simile splays open the cliche “nail in the head of a coffin.” Often Hempel plays with cliché: “I left the room before she could say I didn’t have a leg to stand on, or the shoe was on the other foot;” “I twisted my hands in the time-honored fashion of people in pain.” And this, from “The Rest of God,” in which the cliche first half of the sentence is (literally) undercut by the second: “Wildflowers galloped across thorn-free fields, stopped only when cut and placed in water.”
Yet when I think I have her style pegged—says it without saying it! Overturns cliche!—along comes a story that turns my plaudit on its head. The first two pages of “The Harvest” proceed as a typical Hempel story, brilliant at the sentence level: “I knew there was pain in the room—I just didn’t know whose pain it was;” “In my neighborhood there is a fellow who was a chemistry teacher until an explosion took his face and left what was left behind.” Then a white space; and the lines “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.” She then narrates the “facts” surrounding her accident in precise detail, as direct and forthright as any newspaper reporter.
But when Hempel is this direct, she leaves me wondering if what she has said is “true” in any sense: “I would have written this next part into the story if anybody would have believed it. But who would have? I was there and I didn’t believe it.” The narrator of “The Offertory” perhaps best articulates Hempel’s tenuous stance as regards truth in fiction: “He had told me to say we did it twelve times. Well, maybe it was twelve times, and maybe it wasn’t any times at all. You want the truth and you want the truth and when you get it you can’t take it and have to turn away. So is telling the truth a good or malignant act?”
How does Hempel say it? The thing she can’t say? She doesn’t—and what she has not said resonates with truth. Or else she does—leaving us wondering if her fiction is a vehicle for truth or commentary on the nature of truth itself.
“It’s saying what I can’t say—this is the way I say it.” (“Reference #388475848-5”)
Jamie Quatro’s debut story collection, I Want To Show You More, was released to critical acclaim, including reviews by James Wood in The New Yorker, Dwight Garner in The New York Times, and J. Robert Lennon in The New York Times Book Review. Her stories and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Tin House, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, McSweeney’s, AGNI, and elsewhere. Quatro and her family live in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, where she is currently a contributing editor at Oxford American. Visit her online at jamiequatro.com