By David Holloway
Sing to It: New Stories is the first new work from Amy Hempel in a decade.
The first thing to notice in this collection is the variety of story lengths and tempos. Of the fifteen stories in Sing to It, ten are less than two pages long. Modest of plot, names and setting, the title story is only one page long. But “Cloudland,” the last in the collection—more a novella than a story—runs for sixty-two pages. The reader might imagine the briefer stories to be a sign of the times, a nod to flash fiction. But it’s more likely to be a choice of substance, not form, from a genius of succinct narrative. Throughout this collection, and especially in these shortest pieces, the haiku-like prose is condensed and concentrated. Intense and sparse, there is a bleached and stripped quality to Hempel’s writing. Her narrators, reluctant to yield up their secrets, force us to read between the lines. The reader is left, generally, with a lot of work to do.
Febrile and restive, the characters in these stories seem to want to savor their emptiness. They take themselves apart and don’t always put the pieces back together. “Four Calls in the Last Half Hour,” for example, is a single paragraph running to about two pages, a wrenching stream of consciousness from another unnamed narrator, tormented by an impossible relationship:
But the one with one hundred percent won’t compromise and soon the eager apprentice just gives up, haunted by images of what could have been if the other had just been flexible. Which he can’t be, because he’s inflexible and doesn’t have to be, because he feels he has it all already and doesn’t get lonely the way we do, so why trade self-sufficiency for company.
The stories in Sing to It are about the things we hide behind, the nuances of emotional pain. Rendered here is a disconcerting world of love, loss, longing, and regret, where there is little embellishment or flourish, and even less comfort. Thematically, the stories mainly consider the relationships of the characters to their past and the dislocations of love amongst lovers, mothers, and daughters. Several stories confront the relationship between humans and animals.
“The Quiet Car” is two pages of disconnection around the end of a relationship. “The Second Seating” is about a meal held to honour the memory of a deceased friend. “The Orphan Lamb” addresses the brutality of animal death and butchery. And “A Full-Service Animal Shelter” is a polemic against animal cruelty; an intense work, even a rant, in which each paragraph begins with a variation of the phrase “They knew us as the ones.”
As ever with Hempel, there is that narrative voice that manages, at once, to be both shredded and luscious; saying little but saying a lot. Watch it unfurl, from the first phrases of these stories:
I wasn’t the only friend Syd’s married man hit on the time he came to see her at the beach. (“I Stay with Sid”)
That reminds me of when I knew a romance was over. I had not seen this fellow in a while, but he suggested we meet up at the train station and take the Acela somewhere, so I thought we’d have several hours to catch up. And then at the station, we boarded and he led me to our seats in the Quiet Car. (“Quiet Car”)
The three of us were taken with the vodka fizz made with elderflower and basil so we stayed on and had the raw kale salad and heirloom tomatoes with medallions of halloumi. (“The Second Seating.”)
But it has to be said that some of the stories, and the shortest ones in particular, almost implode into the void of their sparsity. They seem starved of oxygen, and thus at times are not accomplished organically. Inspired by a piece of installation art in North Carolina, “The Doll Tornado,” for example, struggles to connect its meaning to the civil-rights movement. “The Correct Grip” relates two phone calls that follow a violent attack on the narrator, then swerves onto the nature of rescue, involving dogs, and ends in a discussion of the correct grip to use when holding a leash.
Is this an example of a strength becoming a weakness? Hempel’s ability to compress meaning is plain. But it may be overdone in these vignettes, these fragments of stories in which the reader has too little to work with. It feels, in places, like a wireframe instead of a skeleton, and very little like a body.
No wonder, then, that Sing to It lights up in the longer stories. It’s not because the narrative voice changes from its usual level of brevity and concentration. It’s because there is space for a little more objective meaning to engage the reader, for the work to be more fully accomplished.
“Greed” is my favourite. It’s told from the point of view of a wife about her husband’s barely concealed affair with a glamorous older, married woman. Behold the impassive observations of the wife, who has been recording the lovers’ trysts using a camera she has hidden in the matrimonial bedroom:
Together, they lacked fear, I thought, to the extent that she told him to bring me to dinner at her house. With her husband. Really, this was the most startling thing I had heard on playback. Just before the invitation, she told him she would not go to bed with the two of us. My husband was the one to suggest it. As though the two of us had talked it over, as if this were something I wanted. I heard her say, “I have to be the queen bee.” Saw her say it.
“The Chicane” treats a woman’s quest for closure when she meets an actor who once seduced her suicidal aunt. More elaborate of plot and location than the others, it’s another narrative that I found myself invested in, an odd late plot choice notwithstanding.
But for most readers, “Cloudland” will be the standout story. The narrative, which emerges in a fragmented, circling way, centers on a disgraced school teacher who has fled to Florida to start again as a home care worker. Alone, haunted and reflective, the woman relentlessly shreds herself about a choice she made many years ago which intrudes upon her daily routine and is then reignited by the publication of a book.
But even “Cloudland,” it has to be said, falls victim somewhat to excessive fragmentation. An array of images and snippets (which feel selectively borrowed from the author’s personal history), the story shifts back and forth with the sparsest of details to anchor our understanding. This works, in many ways, because it matches the protagonist’s wrenching point of view. But the narrative is barely sustained sometimes, a dilemma which is both emblematic of Hempel’s skill and symptomatic of the struggle that attends some of the stories in Sing to It.
David Holloway is a current student in the MFA program run by the University of California, Riverside, majoring in long form fiction and screenwriting. He is at work on a novel and a screenplay and writes reviews of literary fiction as a hobby. In past lives, David has been an attorney, a record label executive, and a band manager, and now works as a management consultant. An Australian national and an international citizen, David holds Economics and Law degrees and an MBA. He lives in Singapore with his wife and two children.