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The art of omission

Emily Barton is the author of the novels "Brookland" and "The Testament of Yves Gundron."

WHEN Amy Hempel’s first collections appeared in the mid-1980s and early ‘90s, deconstruction reigned in the academy and minimalism in the workshops; both camps embraced her. Despite writing just two slender volumes of stories since then, and eschewing this decade’s maximalism, Hempel has nonetheless established herself among the strongest voices in American fiction. (I know of only one other contemporary writer whose stories have such power: Deborah Eisenberg, whom I would canonize if it were mine to make saints.)

Hempel’s is the work of a brave, unflinching mind, but it can be difficult to describe the singularity of her storytelling: its tightness and rigor, its fierce elisions and excisions, the sense her prose conveys of a world stripped to its essences. In his introduction to “The Collected Stories,” Rick Moody refers to “her nearly Japanese compaction” and assigns her some fitting epithets: “Hempel the miniaturist. Hempel the enemy of causality.” For me, the only experience that approximates reading her is to stand alone in a sun-washed room at the Dia:Beacon museum in New York, surrounded by Agnes Martin’s canvases. Martin’s paintings are vast, but finely detailed; their surfaces may appear to be machine-made grids, but on examination their dots and lines are seen to have been drawn by a precise but fallible hand. This tension -- between structural perfection and the human mind that conceived it -- imbues Martin’s lines and Hempel’s sentences with life.

About halfway through a story called “The Harvest,” for example, Hempel breaks off narrating a young woman’s recovery from an accident to comment: “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.’ ” A reader might cast a gimlet eye on what follows, despite the apparently honest tone; although at the same time, one trusts Hempel’s narrator, even after she admits she’s lying. To read these “Collected Stories” is to watch a keen intelligence hurl itself time and again at the problem of truth’s relationship to happiness. To read them all at once -- quite possible, as even in aggregate Hempel’s stories fill only a medium-sized volume -- is to watch her strike ever closer to the issue’s heart.

Many of the stories in Hempel’s first book, “Reasons to Live,” have a spare, structural beauty like that of a shoji screen; one, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” has been widely anthologized. Despite its familiarity, its portrayal of a woman unable to succor a dying friend remains powerful; its final image -- of a gorilla that’s learned language signing, “Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug,” over the lifeless body of its infant -- is undiluted. In this story, Hempel shows she can extract the salient detail from the sensory morass of any given moment (a group of young men, after stopping to watch some girls sunbathe, go “flexing their cars on up the boulevard”), yet measured against her later work, parts of “Reasons to Live” feel flat. The characters’ circumstances may be poignant -- one woman is marking time until her parents die; another, unable to come to terms with an abortion, sees a friend’s baby, and "[f]or just a moment then I wanted nothing that I had and everything I did not” -- but something feels inorganic or forced, as if some other fine minimalist might have written these words.

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But these traces of awkwardness fall away in her second collection, “At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom,” whose title story, about a lonely woman’s psychic connection to animals, shimmers in the collection like a fish darting through an aquarium. One wouldn’t say this story is better constructed than its predecessors, yet its protagonist’s particular sadness has the mournful, bell-like ring of truth. “In her mind,” Hempel writes, “Mrs. Carlin says to Duncan and Gully: You have made my happiness for thirteen years. Gully and the three cats before her, Duncan and the two pups before him -- she owes them her life.” Such gratitude to humble creatures is sparse in contemporary fiction, and Hempel inhabits this small happiness fully, speaking without judgment or sentimentality. “At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom” isn’t about heartbreak, but heartbreak looms at its periphery, and Hempel’s soulful familiarity with it is part of what makes her third and fourth collections so nearly sublime.

Heartbreak is also the thread that stitches together four pieces at the center of the volume -- the novella “Tumble Home” and the stories “Tom-Rock Through the Eels,” “The Afterlife” and “Offertory,” which, across three different collections, concern a woman accepting her mother’s suicide and beginning a relationship with an established artist. Their tone is blunt, suffused with barely hidden threat. “The truth is,” writes “Tumble Home’s” narrator in a long letter to the painter, “it was hard on me. Not her death -- her life.” When her relationship with the artist comes to carnal flower in “Offertory,” she says of him, “I learned that the more froideur in my tone, the more heated, the more insistent he would become -- until I would be unable to continue because his mouth would be stopped up.”

This narrator is a strange Everywoman: nearly catatonic in “Tom-Rock”; in “Tumble Home,” writing a 70-page letter to the artist from a psychiatric hospital; a willing participant in the sinister sexual exploits of “Offertory.” Yet she speaks for all of us when she recalls leaving hair in the bristles of a man’s brush when departing his home for the last time and asks, “Where is the consolation in this? It is in humiliation, which brings the softness of heart that allows you to listen to God.” Neither Hempel nor her character seems especially religious; the God they speak of is, I think, the god of the deepest truth.

The narrator of “The Dog of the Marriage” (also the title of Hempel’s 2005 collection) learns to understand her husband’s and her own infidelities through a dream:

” ... metaphorically, I am still in the lake, priding myself on a strong Australian crawl while nearby a hammerhead waits. Never mind the fact that this ravenous shark, in real life, is found in warm seas. It is with me in the lake where I mourn my lost status as someone who doesn’t cause problems, and prove again that life is one long medley of prayers that we are not exposed, and try to convince myself that people who seem to suffer are not, in fact, unhappy, and want to be persuaded by the Japanese poem: ‘The barn burned down. / Now I can see the moon.’ ”

I find the bright, hot ache beneath this paragraph’s elegant restraint almost unbearably lovely. The Japanese poet Masahide’s haiku signals the narrator’s acceptance of a qualified happiness. No protagonist in Hempel’s fiction has a healthy marriage; in this entire volume, only the narrator of “The Most Girl Part of You” has so much as a joyful make-out session, and even then she says, “We take the length of the couch, squirming like maggots in ashes.” Yet Hempel’s best stories have at their molten core a happiness no less profound for being hard-earned and dented -- one that begins to approximate, in both its complexity and its compromise, the beauty of the given world. *


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