Fur and sympathy
Amy HEMPEL’S stories are postcards written at a turnpike motel, stained with doughnut grease and coffee rings. They are love letters, sly and restrained. And like comic fabulist Julie Hecht, whose tales are delivered by a deadpan double of the author, Hempel speaks in only one voice. This voice -- and how it came to sound the way it does -- is her subject. Hempel’s style might appear minimalist and stingy, and indeed there aren’t a lot of words in her collections, but her work is emotionally filling. You don’t finish a book and need to go searching the kitchen for something to eat.
“The Dog of the Marriage” contains eight sleek dispatches, some mere snippets, like “Beach Town,” in which the narrator, unseen on her side of the hedge, discovers deceit in the marriage of the renters next door. She knows them only through their loud music, the liquor bottles they lob onto her lawn and voices that carry across their pool. What she constructs from these fragments is a story about herself, not them, and luckily for the reader, it’s not a trial or a sermon, rather a meditation on loss. Her grief is not for herself, but for things at the mercy of humans. She overhears the wife’s friends waxing philosophical: “They told [her] ... to watch the sun rise and set, to look for solace in the natural world, though they admitted there was no comfort to be found in the world and they would all be fools to expect it.” Here is where the narrator veers off. She expects no consolation, but it is precisely in the natural world, amid dogs and growing things, she feels easiest. She cares not that the renters mistreat each other or her property but that they may not be watering the orchids left in their care.
Sometimes a story’s narrator is facing a health crisis. Sometimes she’s lost a dog, a husband or a lover who has stopped speaking to her. Often she has a house near water and she drives a lot, happier in transition than in being anywhere. She has no children. Occasionally she has a job, like training guide dogs for the blind, but mostly the money she lives on seems magically bestowed, either via inheritance or alimony. She could come off as solipsistic and fey, but she does not. Her focus is not on herself but on how the world works, especially the erotic world. Moments in her life that might be scored with portentous organ music -- a rape, a cancer diagnosis, news of an unfaithful spouse -- slip onto the reader’s lap almost accidentally, like dried leaves falling from a book. When a Hempel narrator investigates herself, it’s with the dispassion of a naturalist observing another specimen.
The longest story, “Offertory,” is a companion to “Tumble Home,” the title piece of the author’s previous collection. The new work is richer, weirder, more daring. In the earlier story, the narrator, while recovering from a mental breakdown, writes a long letter to a famous older artist she’s met only once. The narrator’s intensity is compelling, less so are her reports of strangers met in transit. In the second story, the narrator and the artist conduct an affair with conditions set by the man. The narrator must detail having sex in the past with a couple, tell the artist about “everything two people could do to me twelve times.” The story is not entirely successful. While Hempel mostly writes about trance states, here her narrator is perched inside one. She’s smitten by a lover whom she means to win the reader’s heart as well, though he sounds as pompous and creaky as might be expected of someone who would hatch the rule-bound plan. The story’s gift is Hempel’s treatment of pleasure, which she rescues from morality and meaning. Neither love nor respect nor knowledge has granted the narrator satisfaction that compares with what she experiences in this affair: the body forgetting itself.
Short on dramatic incident, the stories risk running out of steam. Mostly they don’t, propelled by Hempel’s wit, language and love of fur. Moving through the collection, the reader grows increasingly intimate with Hempel’s sensibility. The women she speaks through feel mortality penetrating aliveness at all times, but rather than being shocked, they find that inevitable and funny.
A winning case in point is the narrator of “The Uninvited,” who is housesitting during a divorce. When she returns home, she finds a carnival of mice. Yanking open a drawer, she sees “droppings like fat, dark grains of rice surrounding a diamond-and-sapphire pin my mother-in-law had given me when I married her son.” Loyal to the mice, not the in-laws, she refuses to set traps. Earlier, she’d pulled webbing off a strawberry patch that had accidentally trapped and killed a turtle, declaring, “Let everything eat.” This could serve well as the book’s mantra, together with a line plucked from Petrarch’s “Canzoniere” that the narrator feels in tune with: “And so desire carries me along.” *