Review Of The Collected Stories Of Amy Hempel
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/22/07
Over the years I have encountered and criticized many sorts of bad writers, from hack poets like James Tate and Donald Hall, to greeting card doggerelist Maya Angelou, to literary necrophile Thomas Steinbeck, to the deliterate prose of writers like Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace, who cannot even construct competent nor compelling sentences, to prose hacks like T.C. Boyle, Richard Russo, and Joyce Carol Oates, who wallow in cardboard characters and clichés, and even to ‘fuck me’ writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Nell Freudenberger, yet none of them were as consistently overhyped as the short fiction of Amy Hempel.
So, against my better judgment, I went and got her Collected Stories, which came out last year. The book was comprised of her four prior books: Reasons To Live (1985), At The Gates Of The Animal Kingdom (1990), Tumble Home (1997), and The Dog Of The Marriage (2005). I already knew she was a really bad poet, but everything written about her claimed she was the second coming of Anton Chekhov to the form. Of course, having heard that about mediocrities like Alice Munro I was prepared for the worst, ever hopeful of the rarity that an oft-proclaimed good writer might actually live up to that billing. Of course, dubiety abounds when a noted hack Chuck Palahniuk writes, ‘Every sentence isn’t just crafted, it’s tortured over. Every quote and joke, what Hempel tosses out comedian-style, is something funny or profound enough you’ll remember it for years. The same way, I sense, Hempel has remembered it, held on to it, saved it for a place where it could really shine. Scary jewelry metaphor, but her stories are studded and set with these compelling bits. Chocolate chip cookies with no bland ‘cookie’ matrix, just nothing but chips and chopped walnuts.’
From the strained metaphors old Up Chuck uses, is it any wonder I can report to you, dear reader that, no, the only torture involving Hempel’s sentences is that the reader experiences. And I shall give you samples of Hempel’s really bad writing, and her déclassé Upper West Side rich white bitch wannabe Henny Youngman but failed humor as we go on. But, I cannot resist quoting the concrete-headed criticism of Palahniuk again. Now, read the sentence he quotes from Hempel, note how inapt and strained and bad a metaphor it uses, then note how he claims the sentence is minimalist (I shall debunk that claim of Hempel’s prose later) and lacking in abstracts. Then reread the bad Hempel metaphor:
In The Harvest, Hempel writes, "I moved through the days like a severed head that finishes a sentence." Right here, you have her "horses" of death and dissolution and her writing a sentence that slows you to a more deliberate, attentive speed.
Oh, and in minimalism, no abstracts. No silly adverbs like sleepily, irritably, sadly, please. And no measurements, no feet, yards, degrees or years-old. The phrase "an 18-year-old girl" -- what does that mean?
This obfuscatory sort of criticism is de rigueur for bad writers who want to seem like they know more than tyro readers, but all it takes is a few brain cells to plow through the bullshit. Then, he does one of the oldest and most transparent tacks in criticism. He tries to make any criticism of the writer he ‘likes’, not the writer he can demonstrate is ‘good,’ seem dishonest. Palahniuk claims, ‘The only problem with Hempel’s palace of fragments is quoting it. Take any piece out of context, and it loses power. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida likens writing fiction to a software code that operates in the hardware of your mind. Stringing together separate macros that, combined, will create a reaction. No fiction does this as well as Hempel’s, but each story is so tight, so boiled to bare facts, that all you can do is lie on the floor, face down, and praise it.’
Yet, even amidst the asskissing some truths worm there way to the surface, even if he inevitably quotes a French philosopher. One of the major problems with Hempel’s writing is that she cannot sustain a narrative. She writes like an ADD-afflicted cross between a Woody Allen yenta fantasy and a horny teenaged girl who secretly reads Penthouse Letters while she masturbates. Of course, I will not only disprove Palahniuk’s claim of quotation being taking things out of context, because I will quote whole tales (Yes, some are that short!), but I will show, contextualized or not, fiction writing that fails to produce great imagery, characterization, and a cohesive narrative is, by definition, not praiseworthy.
Yet, incredibly, even worse than Palahniuk’s cunnilingual prose hosannahs are those of the even more dreadful Rick Moody, in the Introduction to the book.
Quoth Moody, to start: ‘It’s all about the sentences. It’s about the way sentences move in the paragraphs. It’s about rhythm. It’s about ambiguity. It’s about the way emotion, in difficult circumstances, gets captured in language. It’s about instants of consciousness. It’s about besieged consciousness. It’s about love trouble. It’s about death. It’s about suicide. It’s about the body. It’s about skepticism. It’s against sentimentality. It’s against cheap sentiment. It’s about regret. It’s about survival. It’s about the sentences used to enact and defend survival.’
From this we know that Moody is a bad and hyperbolic writer- I mean, really: ‘It’s about survival. It’s about the sentences used to enact and defend survival.’ Worse, he has an unerring veer toward banality as he goes on. Let’s also add that his PC cred is incontestable, after that display that shows his tongue is even more velveteen that Palahniuk’s. But, let’s note, most importantly, that nowhere in Moody’s hagiography of Hempel did he type: ‘It’s about quality. It’s about excellence. It’s about craft.’ Nor did he type anything that could reasonably be synonymous with those ideas. This is not me being snarky This is a very real observation on the utter obliviousness of published writers to the fact that quality will ultimately determine whether their work is read centuries from now, or whether they are forgotten minutes after their deaths.
Moody then goes on to give examples of what he considers good sentences. I won’t even comment, for too much of what is exhibited as good writing these days has to do with the excess use of modifiers- adverbs and adjectives, as description substitutes for depth and detail replaces characterization. Oy, how I wanted to believe that Hempel would not be as bad as all the praise I read of her work indicated she would be. Then, seeing the Introduction, and knowing it was written by the execrable Moody, well- kiss of death time. See, clichés can be used aptly.
There are several ways to describe Hempel’s work, and after said descriptions, I will back up my claims with quotes from tales, and several whole tales, themselves. Yes, they are that short. Why? Because, at the root of it all, Hempel is a gimmick writer. In her prose, she uses gimmicks over and again, the way the Abstract Expressionists tried to con gullible art lovers and critics into believing the fact that they intended a canvas to look like a drop cloth, or be a single color, made it art, or the way bad writers try to use mathematical formulae or visual pictures and call them ‘poems.’
Yet, aside from her aforementioned déclassé Upper West Side rich white bitch wannabe Henny Youngman but failed humor writing style, the fact is that her approach has been used before, by writers such as Alice Adams, Ellen Gilchrist, and Ann Beattie. And while none of that trio approaches greatness, all are better writers than Hempel, for they actually can develop narratives. They may be bland or trite or passable narratives, but the fact that they are narratives at all is an accomplishment Hempel has yet to learn. ADD infects her writing at every turn.
Yet, in this age of writing that includes ‘short shorts’ and ‘paragraphs’ as separate from prose poems and proems, her writing still fails to engage. None of her page or less length fiction has anything of the power of Reynolds Price, another failed poet; yet one who at least could be poetic in prose. Let me give you the first of five complete works of fiction by Hempel, and see how she fails. Here is the whole of San Francisco:
Do you know what I think?
I think it was the tremors. That’s what must have done it. The way the floor rolled like bongo boards under our feet? Remember it was you and Daddy and me having lunch? ‘I guess that’s not an earthquake,’ you said. ‘I guess you’re shaking the table?’
That’s when it must have happened. A watch on a dresser, a small thing like that- it must have been shaken right off, onto the floor.
And how would Maidy know? Maidy at the doctor’s office? All those years on a psychiatrist’s couch and suddenly the couch is moving.
Good God, she is on that couch when the big one hits.
Maidy didn’t tell you, but you know what her doctor said? When she sprang from the couch and said, ‘My God, was that an earthquake?’
The doctor said this: ‘Did it feel like an earthquake to you?’
I think we are agreed, you have to look on the light side.
* * * *
So that’s when I think it must have happened. Not that it matters to me. Maidy is the one who wants to know. She thinks she has it coming, being the older daughter. Although, where was the older daughter when it happened? Which daughter was it that found you?
When Maidy started asking about your watch, I felt I had to say it. I said, ‘With the body barely cold?’
Maidy said the body is not the person, that the essence is the person, and that the essence leaves the body behind it, along with the body’s possessions- for example- its watch?
‘Time flies,’ I said. ‘Like an arrow.’
‘Fruit flies,’ I said and Maidy said, ‘What?’
‘Fruit flies,’ I said again. ‘Fruit flies like a banana.’
That’s how easy it is to play a joke on Maidy.
Remember how easy?
Now Maidy thinks I took your watch. She thinks because I got there first, my first thought was to take it. Maidy keeps asking, ‘Who took Mama’s watch? She says, ‘Did you take mama’s watch?’
A critic named Alan Cheuse, in The Chicago Tribune, called this tripe ‘arguably the finest short story composed by any living writer.’ Really, Al? Why? Let’s deconstruct this rote writing workshop exercise. The title sets us up for a myriad of possibilities- being set in Chinatown, being about earthquakes, being near the Golden Gate Bridge, being about the Anti-Vietnam War years, the Beatniks, gay rights, etc.
We see it’s about an earthquake, which sets up a familial situation regarding death and greed. Then we get one of many bad Hempel jokes told. In the end, the daughter referenced, Maidy, as opposed to the narrator daughter, is seen as one dimensional and greedy, and there is little insight into San Francisco- the city, death, earthquakes, nor even family relations. And, without as good a reader as me, your average reader is going to be confused by the switches in tone, and left yawning at the end. While thankfully absent of clichés, the tale has no uplift, despite the failed psychiatrist joke, and the even worse sub-Vaudevillean fruit fly joke. Yet those are the two best in the book.
In short, the tale is all surface, with no depth, for all we are told is that there is a sibling rivalry. Ok, then what? There is no great wordplay- where are all those delicious sentences that Palahniuk and Moody are circle-jerking over? Was this it: ‘The way the floor rolled like bongo boards under our feet?’ How about, ‘Maidy said the body is not the person, that the essence is the person, and that the essence leaves the body behind it, along with the body’s possessions- for example- its watch?’ Not exactly original nor deep. This is mere posing. And, ask yourself this- why is there a break that requires an ellipsis? Is there such a startling digression? No. And the whole point of the tale? What is its summative power and value, that sine qua non that all great art or accomplishments possess? Perhaps one should ask Cheuse. Or, simply recall that Hempel is, at heart, a ‘gimmick writer.’ Gimmickry is her lone trick.
At 344 words, San Francisco is an example of bad gimmick writing, but Hempel has done even less with less. Here is the whole 249 words of The Man In Bogotá:
The police and emergency service people fail to make a dent. The voice of the pleading spouse does not have the hoped-for effect. The woman remains on the ledge -- though not, she threatens, for long.
I imagine that I am the one who must talk the woman down. I see it, and it happens like this.
I tell the woman about a man kidnapped in Bogotá. He was a wealthy man, an industrialist who was kidnapped and held for ransom. It was not a TV drama; his wife could not call the bank and, in twenty-four hours, have one million dollars. It took months. The man had a heart condition, and the kidnappers had to keep the man alive.
Listen to this, I tell the woman on the ledge. His captors made him quit smoking. They changed his diet and made him exercise every day. They held him that way for three months.
When the ransom was paid and the man was released, his doctor looked him over. He found the man to be in excellent health. I tell the woman what the doctor said then -- that the kidnap was the best thing that happened to that man.
* * *
Maybe this is not a come-down-from-the-ledge story. But I tell it with the thought that the woman on the ledge will ask herself a question, the question that occurred to that man in Bogotá. He wondered how we know that what happened to us isn't good.
Another one trick pony. This one at least has a summative point, although it’s badly and baldly stated at the end, because Hempel does not trust her readers’ intelligence enough to understand that the last sentence is utterly superfluous. However, even removing it does not make the tale passable. And, again, what is so dramatic about the elliptical break? And, to read Moody, in the book’s Introduction, rhapsodize on how it takes years for Hempel to come up with a dozen or so of these pieces of garbage, and how it is worth the wait, shows exactly why deliteracy has a death grip on Academia and publishing. And, yet again, where are all those great sentences that Hempel’s writing is supposedly all about? Where are rhythm and ambiguity? Certainly not in that bald ending. And what of the use of ‘kidnap’ for ‘kidnapping’? Hmmm….a verb used as a noun, or the reverse, can work, with better writers, but not in this instance, with a hack like Hempel. It merely appears as a typo or example of the writer’s ignorance. And, I ask, is this a great sentence?: It was not a TV drama; his wife could not call the bank and, in twenty-four hours, have one million dollars. No. How about this?: But I tell it with the thought that the woman on the ledge will ask herself a question, the question that occurred to that man in Bogotá. Ok, so we see that the claims for the great talents of Hempel are just that, claims meant to adorn book covers to sell books to the gullible.
Of course, Hempel gets even shorter and worse, as the book goes on. Here is the whole 162 word long In The Animal Shelter:
Every time you see a beautiful woman, someone is tiring of her, so the men say. And I know where they go, these women, with their tired beauty that someone doesn’t want- these women who must live like the high Sierra white pine, there since before the birth of Christ, fed somehow by the alpine wind.
They reach out to the animals, day after day smoothing fur inside a cage, saying, ‘How is Mama’s baby? Is mama’s baby lonesome?’
The women leave at the end of the day, stopping to ask an attendant, ‘Will they go to good homes?’ And come back in a day or so, stooping to examine a one-eyed cat, asking, as though they intend to adopt, ‘How would I introduce a new cat to my dog?’
But there is seldom an adoption; it matters that the women have someone to leave, leaving behind the lovesome creatures who would never leave them, had they once given them their hearts.
Inarguably, this is the worst of the three tales in toto. Again, where are the great sentences? The opener is a nice idea, but not a well crafted sentence. But, that is this piece’s highlight. It all goes south from that relative ‘high.’ Look how easily it descends into mawkishness from a nice idea. It lacks any insight, any depth, and, in truth, this is really an ending for a story, not a whole story. It’s a one dimensional vignette that could be used as a relief against some well sketched tale, either ironically or poetically. But, only if better written, and void of the sentimentality and triteness. Oh, wait, I must be wrong, since Rick Moody wrote, ‘It’s against sentimentality. It’s against cheap sentiment.’ He must have been referring to other tales of Hempel’s, not this garbage.
Continuing in this vein of declivity and brevity, here is the 43 word sentence cum paragraph cum tale, Housewife:
She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, ‘French film, French film.’
Perhaps, rather than the trite title, Hempel might have shown an ounce of humor or creativity and called the piece Tribute To Catherine Deneuve. Aside from the gimmickry and lack of being compellingly wrought, this sentence bespeaks even more of Hempel’s creative barrenness of content than the main character’s, whose ennui she is supposedly critiquing. Even worse, this ‘short story’ is one of a number of examples of Hempel’s veer close to being a writer at the level of Penthouse Letters.
Yet, Hempel even tries to outdo that with a 17 word sentence called Memoir, which is the prose equivalent of the claimed ‘world’s shortest poem,’ Balls: ‘Adam had’em.’ Here it is:
Just once in my life- oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?
Aren’t you just in awe of her talent? Ain’t she a witty genius? The truth is that there are hundreds, if not thousands (or tens of thousands) of talentless Amy Hempels littering creative writing courses across the land. I have seen these cookie cutter sorts of gimmick pieces many, many times, and while Hempel’s are, on the whole, no worse than the others, they are no better, either.
Even in tales that are the conventional length of most short stories, Hempel has no ability to create interesting characters, asides, nor dialogue. They are all just monotonously repeated slight variations on a persona, forced into the sorts of unreal and melodramatic situations that only occur in bad literary fiction, not real life. As example, Pool Night follows a character that, at a party, sets himself aflame. Why? Well, because without that act the tale has no point to exist. But, what lesson is learned by reading of a fifth rate Holden Caulfield wannabe party animal dumb enough to torch himself? Here is its ending:
I know that homes burn and that you should think what to save before they start to. Not because, in the heat of it, everything looks as valuable as everything else. But because nothing looks worth the bother, not even your life.
Doesn’t exactly leave the reader wanting more, does it? And not an example of a laudable sentence, either. And, is this all the summative power and wisdom that Hempel can invoke? And that last phrase flushes whatever was left of the piece’s claim to art. Then there are the numerous quirky to just be quirky characters- straight out of the ‘Northern Exposure’ school of writing, which are nothing but freaks who exist for no reason save to show off the writer’s presumed creative powers in conjuring up freaks, even if they are even less interesting than the rote caricatures the writer usually limns. Yet, not even that tendency is not the worst Hempel can sink to. As mentioned, many of the scenes are straight out of Penthouse Letters, like the yuppy fantasy tale, Offertory, predicated on sexual threesomes and porno films. A sample:
Lying in bed early on: ‘We had rules,’ I reminded him. ‘I could fuck the wife anytime I wanted. I could fuck the husband if the wife was also present. The wife could, whenever she wanted, fuck either one of us — her choice: together or alone. The husband needed no rules, both we women felt, because, we also seemed to feel, we would have no idea where to start in the drawing up of them.’
Wow! Ain’t you hot? And how about this sentence, one straight from the Penthouse Letters style of writing:
We moved into what he called ‘the precincts of possibility,’ of anything-goes, of nothing undisclosed.
The point is that this is all done with seriousness, and not a hint of mockery nor knowing criticism. This seems to infect almost all of Hempel’s writing, and persona, as even at 56 years of age, she still poses like a terminal cocktease on her book’s dust jacket all made up, with puffed cocksmoking lips and dewy bedroom eyes, straight from a Glamour Shots photo session. All that’s missing is a dialogue balloon stating, ‘Mmmm, yummy, gimme some more of that wiener, Studboy!’
Would that Hempel paid as much attention to her writing as she does her glossies. Too much of her writing, as I’ve shown, is simply lazy- tossed off moments and vignettes with no correlation, that the proto-PoMo Hempel hopes sycophants will cobble together in as many ways as possible, then declaim her godhead. The dialogue is unreal and smacks of a tin ear, there is virtually no forward action, and there is no real cogitation of sketching out of the inner terrain of the characters.
Hempel is wholly generic, despite the acolytes who try to say she’s different than most of the other published female writers out there. Ok, they have a point. There is a difference. Hempel’s a worse writer than they are. Read just one tale, and you know all the tricks she’ll use, because she’s a gimmicky workshop writer with just one trick. And while I’m at it, let me debunk the claim that is too often used as a defense for her terrible writing: Hempel is no Minimalist. That term is often tossed at any writer or artist whose work is brief. But, brevity is not synonymous with Minimalism, for Minimalism is not a lack of features, but those features stripped to essentials. Since there is nothing in Hempel’s writing- no narrative base, no summative crux, she cannot be Minimalist. She is simply a writer lacking in descriptive, narrative, and insightful powers. Plus she’s lazy. Her writing reminds me of the bad prose writers who turn to poetry because it’s easier; i.e.- shorter. Yet, Hempel’s gotten even more slothful than the typical writers of bad poetry or short short fictions, as her writing does not even have to be broken into lines, and seems as ready made as junk food.
To put that in the most accessible form possible, this lack is exactly why Hempel is such a generic and forgettable writer. Yet, because people like her are praised (as well as, for different reasons, equally bad writers like Eggers, Lahiri, Oates, etc.), other formulaic writers think they can write- even that literary necrophile, Thomas Steinbeck! And the truth is that when they say, ‘Hey, my writing is no worse than her crap, therefore I should be published too,’ they are right! At least insofar as the merits of their writing vs. those of bad published writers like Hempel. In a just world, someone like Hempel would never have gotten into print. Then again, perhaps her cocksmoking lips are her best asset!
But, there is an even gloomier aspect to her writing. As bad as she is in the small, her longer tales are worse, because they are pointless, and she rambles on without even the need to descend into another Henny Youngman one liner, which, as bad as they are, are still better than unmoored narratives.
Here is a roll call of some of the worst tales. The Harvest is a tale of surgery, after a motorcycle accident, and litigation and digresses to fishing for abalone, and the rise of shark attacks. It actually starts fairly well, with perhaps the best sentence in the collection: ‘The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.’ Then, the rest of the tale has Hempel breaking the fourth wall again and again, to the point that rather than ending the tale with a big bang that is the lone break, she wears out the tack with senseless little breaks, that get progressively weaker and….yes, gimmicky.
Let’s look at them”
#1 and #2:
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 have left out of ‘The Harvest,’ and maybe begin to wonder why I had to leave it out.
There was no other car. There was only the one car, the one that hit me when I was on the back of the man's motorcycle. But think of the awkward syllables when you have to say motorcycle.
The driver of the car was a newspaper reporter. He worked for a local paper. He was young, a recent graduate, and he was on his way to a labor meeting to cover a threatened strike. When I say I was then a journalism student, it is something you might not have accepted in ‘The Harvest.’
‘Marriageability’ was the original title of ‘The Harvest.’
In addition to being a beauty, the girl was worth millions of dollars. Would you have accepted this in ‘The Harvest’- that the model was also an heiress?
Here is the tale’s end:
The great white sharks in the waters near my home attack one to seven people a year. Their primary victim is the abalone diver. With abalone stakes at thirty-five dollars a pound and going up, the Department of Fish and Game expects the shark attacks to show no slackening.
Not particularly good, nor bad, just like most of the tale. There simply seems little point for the tale, save to show that Hempel is PoMo in her ability to reference her own story within the story. Original, eh? And, as I’ve shown, we’re still waiting for that torrent of great sentences that thrust Moody’s hands down his pants.
The Most Girl Part of You starts with Jack ‘Big Guy’ Fitch trying to crack his teeth with cold water and hot drinks and ends with a pseudo suicide attempt and possible sexual exploitation or rape. Hempel’s lack of firm narrative leaves open possibilities, but none of which her lack of skill impels you to care about. Here is how it ends:
I play back everything that has happened to me before this. I want to ask Big Guy if he is doing this, too. I want him to know what it clearly seems to me: that if it’s true your like flashes past your eyes before you die, then it is also the truth that your life rushes forth when you are ready to start to truly be alive.
Wow, wasn’t that a Zen moment? Hempel’s wisdom astounds, eh? Could she have been more trite, or does she simply like the fact that her stories almost all end with the thud of a corpse in a suitcase, and the murderer wearing a, ‘Who, me?’ smirk.
In Jesus Is Waiting, a woman who is alone takes to driving, with a potted plant in her car, and finds herself weeping ‘when the lane I am in merges with another.’ Interesting? Perhaps, if done well. Hempel’s take? Not. The Uninvited follows a fifty year old woman takes a pregnancy test after being raped. The child could be the rapist’s or her estranged husband’s. Note the very soap operatic vision, so to speak, that Hempel’s literary purview entails. Note, too, how void it is of real characters and real dramas.
Thus, Hempel’s apologists try to boost her reputation by claiming ordinary skills and tacks as something unique. In the tale, The Center, which is only two pages long, an online critic rhapsodizes on the fact that Hempel changes the seeming arc of the tale midway, from a friend of the narrator to a dog named Pal, which was named after an earlier dog, and ends with a legend about why men and dogs are compatible. It’s not a great tale, but it is one of the three or four passable tales in the book. Yet, it is solid not because of any literary trick- a narrative feint is something many writers use, and to assert that it is is simply a display of a lack of knowledge about narrative. Furthermore, the fact that the tale is only two pages means that any narrative feint is going to occur soon, and thus have minimal impact, especially when contrasted with a feint that occurs 50% or more into a ten or twenty page tale. Just recall the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho. A third of the way into it, we believe the seeming lead character is played by Janet Leigh, until she is killed by Anthony Perkins, the real filmic and narrative lead.
Then again, these sorts of claims are minor indiscretions compared to
this Word Riot review
of The Dog Of The Marriage by David Barringer:
Amy Hempel is dangerous. I thought this when I read her first book of stories, and I think it now that I’ve read her latest (her fourth). Hypnotic stylists are dangerous, dangerous like Denis Johnson and Lydia Davis and Lorrie Moore and Grace Paley and Donald Barthelme and Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, etc. etc. Writers who read a Hempel paragraph think, ‘Wow, I want to do this.’ Writers who finish a Hempel story think, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ Hempel is a seductive stylist; she makes it look easy.
Well, of course, no, Davey Boy. We’ve yet to see even a compelling paragraph in the numerous ones I’ve quoted, much less….ooh, ah- dangerous! And note the list of hacks he ticks off- almost all very bad writers themselves.
Perhaps the worst trait Hempel has, of many, is that she seems to believe that telling bad jokes, displaying them as bad jokes, and then expecting their knowing badness to somehow amuse readers, is somehow a way to convey character traits. Yet, since she overdoes this tack, as well, all it really shows is her limited imagination in coming up with ‘traits’ to divine character with. Here is the worst example of her bad joke telling, a centerpiece joke, from the tale Today Will Be A Quiet Day:
‘Don’t the two of you know any jokes? I haven't laughed all day,’ the father said.
‘Did I tell you the guillotine joke?’ the girl said.
‘He hasn’t laughed all day, so you must’ve,’ her brother said.
The girl gave her brother a look you could iron clothes with. Then her gaze dropped down. ‘Oh-oh,’ she said, ‘Johnny's out of jail.’
Her brother zipped his pants back up. He said, ‘Tell the joke.’
* * *
‘Two Frenchmen and a Belgian were about to be beheaded,’ the girl began. ‘The first Frenchman was led to the block and blindfolded. The executioner let the blade go. But it stopped a quarter inch above the Frenchman’s neck. So he was allowed to go free, and ran off shouting, ‘C’est un miracle! C’est un miracle!’’
‘It’s a miracle,’ the father said.
‘Then the second Frenchman was led to the block, and same thing- the blade stopped just before cutting off his head. So he got to go free, and ran off shouting, ‘C’est un miracle!’
‘Finally the Belgian was led to the block. But before they could blindfold him, he looked up, pointed to the top of the guillotine, and cried, ‘Voila la difficulté!’
She doubled over.
‘Maybe I would be wetting my pants if I knew what that meant,’ the boy said.
‘You can't explain after the punchline,’ the girl said, ‘and have it still be funny.’
‘There's the problem,’ said the father.
Again, why is there a break needed? And, the Belgian-French angle is not particularly relevant, even when the characters tell us that fact- ooh, more PoMo! But, if that was not bad enough, here is the dull end of the tale:
‘Kids, I just remembered- I have some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first?’
It was his daughter who spoke. ‘Let's get it over with,’ she said. ‘Let’s get the bad news over with.’
The father smiled. They are all right, he decided. My kids are as right as this rain. He smiled at the exact spots he knew their heads were turned to his, and doubted he would ever feel- not better, but more than he did now.
‘I lied,’ he said. ‘There is no bad news.’
Can you hear the crash of the Henny Youngman cymbals? And the overall triteness of the situation, and the way that triteness is banally phrased- eegh!
Of course, bad endings are a Hempel staple. Forget anything that went on in the tale before this ending to In A Tub, just read how badly it is phrased.
Here is what you do. You ease yourself into a tub of water, you ease yourself down. You lie back and wait for the ripples to smooth away. Then you take a deep breath, and slide your head under, and listen for the playfulness of your heart.
Perhaps Hallmark has a winner, should Maya Angelou ever give up the ghost! Then, again, perhaps not, since Hallmark would not approve of Hempel’s Penthouse Letters streak. In Offertory, a woman tells tall tales to her lover of her sexual encounters with a married couple as a young woman. Here are two consecutive paragraphs from the tale, that are emblemic of why the tale, and Hempel’s overall prose fails:
had a past, and my past contained a marriage and a job and friends. But I had
long since dispensed with his past. I had spent the year before moving to the
lake at a place where people recover from the bad things that seek them out. For
the time I was there, I wrote to this man although, or because, I had met him
only once, and because I felt our talk had been not an exchange of words, but of
Cliché alert! Now, read this:
I read about a famous mystery writer who worked for one week in a department store. One day she saw a woman come and buy a doll. The mystery writer found out the woman’s name, and took a bus to New Jersey to see where the woman lived. That was all. Years later, she referred to this woman as the love of her life.
The raising of this anecdote seems to be an interesting digression, one
that could lead somewhere and give an askance in to a character, but as
with most of Hempel’s ADD-afflicted writing, it’s dropped, and becomes
utterly meaningless. The woman simply has no idea of how to craft depth into a
tale and its characters- not by making them do unreal and outrageous things,
like setting themselves on fire nor indulging in Guccionean sexual fantasies,
but by detailing their lives from perspectives that give insight and parallax
their existences against other characters’ existences. Thus, digressions like
this are accidental, the way even an unmusicked mind might hum a few perfect
bars mindlessly over the course of a few hours, and not the ‘talent’ that is
so often proclaimed for bad writers by critics with obligations to pay, much
less the evidence of an aborning Beethoven of prose.
Perhaps the most overpraised tale in the collection is In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried. An unnamed speaker recalls visiting a dying friend (also nameless), and having to wear a mask when seeing her. They blather on about the inconsequentials of life and exchange mediocre anecdotes. They speak of the Kübler-Ross stages of dying and yet another bad joke is foisted upon the reader, this one about Eskimos and refrigerators. There are, again, some accidental moments that could have led to depth and revelation- the same sort of accidents as described above. Then the tale ends in melodramatic banality, as Hempel again shows that she does not understand an old maxim of mine: Greater than transcendence is its recognition. Not that she ever truly transcends in this tale, nor any others, but an understanding of the mechanics of storytelling would have greatly helped her in making this tale, which has some initial promise, much closer in quality to the overpraised work it is claimed than the ‘very special episode’ of a tv drama it is.
Hempel even unwittingly admits that she has no idea what it takes to
create writing of excellence. A quote attributed to her in several sources says,
‘Somebody said it’s
[her writing’s] like a Pointillist painting. Point, point, point,
point.…moment, moment, moment….you stand back and it adds up to something.’
Perhaps the only good thing about this quote is that, unlike many artistic con
artists (think L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E Poets, Beatniks, Abstract Expressionists, etc.),
she readily admits cluelessness, and does not try to foist highfalutin’ alibis
for her crap. Then, why should she, when she has so many moronic and servile
acolytes like Moody and Palahniuk?
Hempel, at root, and again, is a gimmick writer, not a Minimalist, nor a
stylist in full control of her powers, for she has little in the way of
descriptive gifts, no ear for dialogue, and no real understanding of the way
real people act. Her characters often act the way ‘reality show’ contestants
react to problems- with overblown emotions and undergrown intellects, not the
way real people would react. And it is the ability to attach that sort of
reality to fiction that is the hallmark of a great prose writer. And, enough of
this idea that she has a ‘disinterest in narrative,’ or some such. This sort
of claim- be it for a David Foster Wallace or Donald
Barthelme or Amy Hempel, would have a bit more heft if they ever
displayed even a minor knack for that aspect of writing. Not that that would
erase the artistic loss of a lack of narrative in any particular tale (just as
the pukings of a Jackson Pollock or the monochrome canvases of a Mark Rothko are
not made into real art by the fact that they were capable of figurative
rendering), but it would add credibility to the claim; and by narrative I
certainly do not mean A to B to C obviousness, but any solid narrative
Instead, all one gets in a typical Hempel tale are a few precious moments- as if from a 1980s Calvin Klein commercial; and the blatant ‘product placement’ in some of her tales is a sure sign of her ephemeral status, as few will have any clue as to what things she is referring to in coming decades- assuming a few copies of her work remain, and stale jokes. In fact, one whole tale is predicated on Hempel’s Henny Youngman predilection. In Three Popes Walk Into A Bar, a bad comedian, under the watchful eye of his manager, decides he’ll give up his life, because his shrewish wife wants him to. The tale is punctuated not with the bad joke about three popes, but by its never being told, nor even getting a glimpse into the act, itself. Yet, that’s it. Nothing else occurs. His dull life and bad performances go on. There is no drama, not even melodrama. It’s the reading equivalent of needing to fart, and knowing that if you do, it will unleash a big stink and sound, so you pinch your cheeks and let it go in silence. But the odor remains. And the idea of the tale is never elaborated upon after the first page or two’s setup.
Yet, no story exhibits Hempel’s clueless anomy with storytelling than her longest tale- the titular novella, Tumble Home. And as preciously overweening as garbage like Housewife or Memoir are, at least they are brief. This 68 page monstrosity makes Marcel Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past seem like a brief lark, even if is literally only 1/100th the length. It’s simply an ungodly long string of banal observations by an infatuated woman who is writing letters, while institutionalized, to a famous painter she once met. Yet, we get no sense of the woman’s interior life, no sense that there is any point but Hempel deciding, ‘Hmm, I wonder what crazies are like.’ That, and a few pseudo-poetic moments, could have had greater effect in a tenth the size- 6-7 pages.
Now, I want to compare Hempel’s forced pseudo-poetic end to that tale with a very similar ending to a prose piece by a great writer. Here is Hempel’s end to Tumble Home:
Terns are quarreling in a windswept, vine-hung pine. And- worthy of your brush- three egrets stop in different poses for a second, as if they were a single bird at three consecutive moments. Now they are in motion, alighting on the sand. The tide this time of year washes hundreds of tiny starfish up onto the beach. It leaves them stranded in salty constellations, a sandy galaxy within reach.
Note the melodramatic use and choice of words and phrases like windswept, egrets, poses, alighting, tide, onto the beach, and within reach. Forget even that these are very poor writerly choices (as well as predictable: starfish/galaxy?– really deep), but they ring utterly false to the rather prosaic (in all senses) character that uses these words suddenly. Even if we grant that an epiphany can happen, a character of limited means would describe it in ways that showed his or her vocabulary being overbrimmed. Joe the plumber does not suddenly wax Keatsian at the turn of a moment.
Now, here is an example of great prose from one of the supreme stylists of the last century, Loren Eiseley, who was also a poet, who could use modifiers that seemed like one thing- a verb, as a noun, or vice-versa, and was also the master of the ‘hidden internal essay,’ wherein he would discourse on subjects minute and vast by recounting personal anecdotes and relating them to dogmas or principles. This is the ending to one of his most well known and greatest essays, The Starthrower. After a poetic and wise discourse on the fate of mankind and the individual, the speaker returns to a beach and recollects:
In the night the gas flames under the shelling kettles would continue to glow. I set my clock accordingly. Tomorrow I would walk in the storm. I would walk against the shell collectors and the flames. I would walk remembering Bacon’s forgotten words ‘for the uses of life.’ I would walk with the knowledge of the discontinuities of the unexpected universe. I would walk knowing of the rift revealed by the thrower, a hint that there looms, inexplicably, in nature something above the role men give her. I knew it from the man at the foot of the rainbow, the starfish thrower on the beaches of Costabel.
This is brilliant writing, and shows the difference between a forgettable hack and a true Master of wordplay. And, as said, Eiseley uses verbs as if nouns, as if in a poem, were the sentence to be enjambed. Note how Eiseley distills images, by using the word flames directly after gas, as if a verb, not the expected noun. Then, in the same sentence, he uses an expected verb- shelling, as an adjective for the word kettles. And what an assonance! Then he subverts a cliché by walking into a storm, not with it, nor causing it. And the storm referenced- even if one reads nothing but this paragraph, is a literal weather phenomenon, not a strained metaphor. He also walks against flames, not into nor with them. Then smack dab in the middle of the paragraph is this superb sentence, one Hempel could not construct in a hundred lifetimes of churning out her stale prose: I would walk with the knowledge of the discontinuities of the unexpected universe. The walk, now, is with something- but not something trite, like flames. And there is no posing nor alighting. Then there is the great idea and naming of the discontinuities- not some trite thing like harmonies, of the universe, which is unexpected, a great modifier and metaphor for the coming to a new realization. Then, this is all superbly tied back to, in great prose, to an incident on a beach that opens the essay.
There is no sermonizing, no descent into banality, no preciousness, revealed in prose as staged and phony as the cover photographs artistic poseurs and phonies like Hempel always preen in. And, yet, Hempel’s novella’s end is probably the best that she offers. The rest are substantially weaker, which distinctly illustrates the gulf of talent and skill between Hempel and a truly great writer. Incidentally, Hempel’s inability to control her Tourettesian verbosity (in stark opposition to her always- and wrongly, claimed Minimalism) in this tale is presaged with a pointless and ill-wrought epigraph from a poem of the poetically skill-challenged Sharon Olds.
In short, The Collected Stories Of Amy Hempel is a valuable document, but of the failings of the modern MFA Creative Workshopping of the publishing industry. That this manifestly bad writer is not only published but lauded illustrates exactly why most people have stopped reading most published writing- not because of tv, the movies, the Internet, nor video games, but because the publishing industry simply does not want intelligent readers. If it did, it would publish writing more akin to that of a Loren Eiseley than an Amy Hempel- poster girl of the deliteracy, dumbing down, and gimmickry of today’s fiction. Yes, there’s a reason Hempel is not widely read, and this is because, aside from her bad prose, there’s only one thing worse than blatantly pandering to the Lowest Common Denominator in the arts, and that is pandering to a small, incestuous band of snobs and workshop cronies, whose only reason for existence is to circle-jerk each other into justifying why their downward spiral of art is somehow not what it appears to be to the real world. They take their lauded obscurity as proof that they are artists, not realizing that great art and mass appeal are not always and naturally mutually opposing things. Yes, it is hard to achieve both, but, as in genetics, incest only leads to a warped creation.
Writers like Hempel impress people who are not well read, but to those of us who are well read her lack of skill and desperate gimmickry is not only transparent, but depressingly familiar. Her ‘tales’ are too often not too interesting, barely connected strings of ideas and moments, rather than ‘real’ tales. And, even worse than being trite, they are stupefyingly dull. And, to bottom things out, reading the four books in succession shows how little Hempel had in her gas tank to begin with, and her total lack of growth in style and subject matter over the decades. She still writes like a college coed fascinated with the discovery of her G-Spot, rather than a mature adult who can impart some wisdom, or, at the very least, some joy or entertainment (those dread Lowest Common Denominator factors that most art seems to alone now strive for). For all her own flaws, even a hack like Joyce Carol Oates- whose prose is larded with cardboard characters and clichés, can at least arc a narrative, and in more than an A to B to C fashion. Hempel cannot even do that (and I’ll change that cannot to will not once Hempel produces a single tale that displays an even passable narrative).
Add to that far too much name dropping of brand names, materialistic
characters, condescension, sentences void of music, alliteration, assonance,
nonexistent narratives, surface motivations, and a lack of depth and character
development, and Luigi Pirandello’s
play’s title, Six Characters In Search Of An Author, might be altered
for Hempel’s career to read One Author In Search Of Narrative. Hell,
she’s gone for worse gimmicks. <crash of cymbals>
And none of this has been taken out of context!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Monsters & Critics website.]
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