Raymond Carver called her a precisionist. Others write that she is a minimalist and a miniaturist. As a student of her work I can only add illuminator and listener. Anything more would be too wordy a description for Amy Hempel.
If you’ve never read any Hempel before, prepare yourself for a different sort of story. Plot bows down before language, and her tangential detail builds in a style similar to Elizabeth Bishop’s. She explores themes by developing collage-like details into vistas from which she makes some final revelation or turn in an unexpected direction. 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.”
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.”
Not all of Hempel’s stories are so abbreviated though. The 83-page long novella “Tumble Home” is a letter written from a woman living in a psychiatric halfway house to a painter with whom she once had tea. After only a few pages, you’re embarrassed for this woman who emotionally undresses so readily before a stranger. Through a series of interrelated vignettes the narrator’s history with her family, the other patients, and her doctors slowly surfaces, and, subsequently, her self-obsessed psyche. Then the narrator’s inner struggle with suicide gives way to one of Hempel’s favorite themes: displacement due to loss.
From the first story, “Weekend,” where she sets up her ideal of home, to the last, where the narrator is by far the most isolated voice of the collection, Hempel describes the range of forms home can take and how people look for it. In the novella the term “tumble home” is defined as “the place on a ship that is â€¦ the widest part of the bow before it narrows to cut through water â€“ it is the point where the water parts and goes to one side of the ship or the other. To me, the tumble home is the place where nothing can touch you.”
That these stories bookend her collection is the best indication of the range, and of the excellence, in between.
Other work by Amy Hempel: Her first collection of stories, Reasons to Live, was published in 1985. Her second collection, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, appeared six years later. She co-edited Unleashed, a collection of poems by writers’ dogs, with Jim Shepard in 1995.