DIY MFA Reading List: “The Collected Stories” by Amy Hempel

Amy Hempel is a master of the short story: praised by critics, adored by novelists, and imitated by creative writing students around the globe. Which is to say you’ve probably never heard of her. A contemporary of the more masculine (and more famous) short story writers like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, Hempel has never written a full-length novel. Her Collected Stories presents 400 pages of stories perfected over 20 years, strangely intricate puzzlers enlisting her reader, in one collaborative effort after another, to question the very nature of the consciousness doing the reading.

Hempel’s stories reflect a discontent with the traditional view of narrative: a product (the story), produced by one person (the writer), for consumption by another (the reader). This dynamic is too one-sided for Hempel. Language itself is a kind of a lie, Hempel argues, an abstraction of reality. And she’s trying to show us something real about ourselves. The author can only do that by transcending language, and involving us in the story.

And so logic is turned on its head. Phrases are turned inside out, love is turned into loss, and the reader is turned into a kind of voyeuristic co-author. Here is Hempel addressing us directly, in the final paragraphs of her short story “The Harvest”: “The man of a week, whose motorcycle it was, was not a married man. But when you thought he had a wife, wasn’t I liable to do anything? And didn’t I have it coming?”

This metafictional gambit is either annoying or genius, depending on your point of view. If the former, maybe you get angry and stop reading Amy Hempel. If the latter, maybe you go back and examine whether your assumptions about the narrator were tinged by her loose morals. But in both cases it accomplishes the author’s purpose, which is to reach past the veil of the narrative and force you into a relationship with the “you” from five minutes ago.

This interplay between the psyche and the body is a recurrent theme in Hempel’s stories. We are fragile beings trapped inside strange and wonderful bodies. And while the body might recover from trauma or injury relatively quickly, the mind keeps circling back to it. We are always adding footnotes to past experience, reshaping memories, tricked by our selves into making sense out of nonsense. “Nothing is a long time ago”, Hempel argues in her story “The Afterlife”.

And if our brains are tricksters, then love is a cruel kind of joke, an illusion which the author is slow to embrace. Hempel’s narrators are often voyeuristic third wheels, cracking one-liners from the sidelines as a relationship slides slowly off the rails. Or writing letters to someone who will never respond. Or recounting steamy stories to self-involved lovers who care only about the words, and not about the person doing the telling. Darkly funny stories about love losing itself, Hempel knows, are more revealing than the other kind, the make-believe stories we tell one another about true love.

“There is an almost unbridgeable gulf between what an artist sees and what an artist paints,” Hempel writes in “Offertory”. We graft our experience onto reality, and in so doing make fiction out of life. Art is an extreme example of this phenomenon. But it’s happening all the time, and once you’re aware of it, watching the process at work can be either horrifying, or gratifying, or both. Much like these stories.

“Offertory” is the final story in this collection, written more recently than the others. In it, Hempel comes to terms with the idea that affection – and our experience – is a metafictional construct. The narrator here is in a somewhat sad relationship with a man – an artist – who can only get excited when she talks about the threesome she had with a married couple, years ago:

“I admit to ineluctable jealousy – comparisons, comparisons, real and imagined. And, as it happens, there exists in me – not pathologically, but all too humanly, I think – a species of delight arising from this knowledge. Darling,” he said, conspiring, “are these conflicting sentiments and the mystery they point to not at the core of our alliance?”

Hempel could almost be describing her relationship with the reader here. Doomed and distant accomplices, trying to discover something new about the world, and themselves. Can love be trusted? Is it “true”? Probably not, says the author. But sometimes proximity can approximate passion, and in the end Hempel seems to choose the comfort of a stranger over solitude:

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 a person the truth a good or malignant act? Precision – that was easy. He had asked for it! There was more to tell; there would always be more to tell. If I chose to tell him.

In the meantime.

I was never more myself than when I was lying in this man’s arms.

We lay quietly, holding each other. Time was slown way down … I knew he was not entirely with me, and I had a shopworn thought: To be able to reverse the direction of time! But wouldn’t we have to go through the same things in reverse?

“Darling,” he said again.

So here we go, careening along in the only direction there is to go in, our bodies braced for transport – “Unimprovable,” he says.

Keep talking, Amy.

(This review was originally published at Zouch Magazine)

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.