Amy Hempel: Sing To It: New Stories
Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh
Since her first collection of darkly humorous fiction, Reasons to Live, was released in 1985, the Chicago-born writer Amy Hempel has been changing the short-story form—often, by abbreviating it. Like Lydia Davis and other masters of the micro-fiction sub-genre, Hempel can fit a fully realized narrative into a single paragraph. On April 8, Hempel brings her new collection, Sing to It, to Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. As if speaking directly to a North Carolina audience, one of the fifteen stories, “The Doll Tornado,” is set in Greensboro. It features an out-of-town narrator’s ode to the thrift-store-turned-museum Elsewhere’s beloved art installation. After thirty years exploring a world as peculiar as it is heart-rending, Hempel hasn’t changed course with Sing To It so much as sharpened her knives.
The title of the collection comes from an Arabic proverb that a character quotes while comforting a dying friend: “When danger approaches, sing to it.” In these stories, danger is quiet: intimacy and isolation pose the greatest threats to the safety that Hempel’s characters long for. In “Moonbow,” when a bear wanders into the backyard of an unnamed narrator, it appears to be a threat, at first blush, but then begins to play with the toys of her late dog and suddenly, it seems to be her reincarnated pet. Instead of disaster, a sort of interspecies intimacy takes hold: “I tell him what has happened since I lost him … I tell him that the deli has gone up for sale, that another antiques store has opened, that I hate my haircut, that I have not thrown anything away.” Danger, spoken to, is temporarily transformed into a source of unlikely communion.
Physical harm isn’t out of the question—take one story’s awkward, friendly phone call between a woman and the wife of her attacker, for example—but these stories more frequently are about characters toying with stability, in flight and in pursuit of it at once. One woman dreams of planting “windbreak, woods, a forest, a glen” right outside the dark apartment in Fort Bedd that she shares with a man she doesn’t bother to introduce. She can be wry: “The second ‘d’ is silent. We agreed on that, if not on much else.” But she’s also leading a life of quiet desperation: “If we were going to get through this, I would need trees.” As in so many Hempel sentences, a trapdoor in ordinary language opens and, as Emily Dickinson wrote, we “drop down, and down.” When she says “get through,” we know she’s at once referencing the relationship and life itself.
All of Hempel’s stories stay close to this spot where the everyday, once probed, betrays a secret about the past that has shaped it. Sometimes the danger is the fact that the past doesn’t rest on the surface. In “The Second Seating,” a table of three has finished a meal but won’t give up their seats in a crowded restaurant. The elderflower-and-basil vodka fizz they drink seems to tell us everything we need to know about them, and we’re ready to call them jerks and move on. Then, Hempel drops a revelation: “Bob, dying, had made us promise we would have dinner there without him.” This fulfills one of fiction’s great aims: It surprises the reader and makes them momentarily complicit.
The two longest stories of the collection deserve special mention, as they anchor the collection and highlight the two themes, animals and aging, that distinguish Hempel as one of America’s foremost chroniclers of otherwise unrecognized lives. “A Full-Service Shelter” depicts a shelter volunteer from the dogs’ perspective, as they witness her devotion, fear, and love for the forgotten animals she tries to comfort them in their final days. Crucially, Hempel’s animal stories don’t merely use animals to illustrate human personalities: Instead, they live and establish relationships during the brief period of time—the length of a story, perhaps—that they have left before dying or, like the bear in “Moonbow,” “tear[ing] off through the woods.”
The final story in Sing to It, “Cloudland,” is the collection’s masterpiece, as it finally satisfies our desire for an extended portrait of a Hempel protagonist. Taking after Alice Munro in its willingness to put chronology aside in the service of revelation, the story emerges as if from stone. It’s to Hempel’s credit that the plot points—a teenage pregnancy and adoption, a mid-life career change—barely touch the surface of a story in which the past, like intimacy, threatens to reach out. The main character is wise in the Socratic sense: She knows that she doesn’t know and doesn’t let it stop her from moving through life. She even offers a word of wisdom on the state of uncertainty in which so many of us live. “There must be a word for the state of going about your business without knowing something key, and with someone else knowing it, and knowing too that there could come a time when you will know it. I think the name of this state is The Way We Live Now.”