Tyler Fields Recommends “The Collected Stories” by Amy Hempel

Last Friday we introduced “Recommended Reads,” a new segment in which Ball State students and faculty contribute a short review of a recommended piece of literature. Continue below to read our second installment in the series, which features Tyler Fields, a BSU Senior Creative Writing major, who reviews The Collected Stories by Amy Hempel.

Amy Hempel’s The Collected Stories was recommended to me four years ago as I entered into my Creative Writing degree. As a product of canonized, award-winning, or mass market novels, I had little exposure to independent or short-form fiction growing up. Hempel’s collection inspired me to discover and explore various styles of writing. Her stories also helped me envision those themes and narrative elements I find most important, not only in my own writing, but in all art. Whether to discover your own writing voice or to experience Hempel’s incomparable narratives, The Collected Stories is a book worth reading.

“My heart – I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God,” begins Amy Hempel’s The Collected Stories. From the first line, Hempel poises her readers with the imagery of movement before sending them off with her final lines of the book, “So here we go, careening along in the only direction there is to go in, our bodies braced for transport – ‘Unimprovable,’ he says.” It is only fitting that Hempel should frame the 400-page anthology of her 20-year career with such moving and unresolved imagery. A majority of her stories, which range from 17 words to 68 pages and everywhere in between, are observatory in nature. Each of Hempel’s stories sees her protagonists through characteristically mundane events with little climax or resolution. Take her story, “Breathing Jesus,” for instance. In the story, the protagonist visits a mechanical carnival Jesus whose chest will rise and fall after a quarter has been deposited: “Jesus – he’s breathing,” says a bystander. While this piece of flash fiction is relatively uneventful and physically small, Hempel economically packs each image and internal thought with themes of paranoia, anxiety, faith, and growth. For example, early in the piece, Hempel writes, “I saw these things because of the noises in my head.” Near the end she says in regards to breathing, “Because you have to believe that something will work. I don’t but you have got to.” True to Hempel’s nature, the story ends without a significant sense of catharsis. Rather, her stories take advantage of the commentary about common conflicts which arise out of the mundane – a feat Hempel is particularly gifted at conveying in such little space.

And while the talent of expounding upon such personal and ambiguous themes is a hallmark of Hempel’s, her stories posses traits which collectively construct an unforgettable Hempel-signature. Notably, Hempel has a dark and unapologetic sense of humor. She begins her story, “Du Jour,” with the following: “The first three days are the worst, they say, but it’s been two weeks, and I’m still waiting for those first three days to be over.” In another story, “The Harvest,” Hempel wastes no time acquainting her reader with the narrative by writing, “The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.” In addition to her humor, Hempel writes with simple and potent language. Perhaps the most telling example of this trait is her story, “Memoir,” which, in its entirety, reads, “Just once in my life – oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?” In so few words, Hempel skillfully comments on themes of desire, regret, and growth. What makes her style of writing so attractive is its ability to act as a blank slate, of sorts, onto which readers project their own experiences, interpretations, and themes.

However, as striking as these traits might be, they are surface elements. And if there is a single recurrent moral to Hempel’s writing, it is that nothing is as simple as it seems on the surface. Her stories are riddled with commentaries on death, fear, loss, love, hope, faith, and existence.  She skillfully uses very unassuming stories to speak about some of the more difficult elements of life. And in her final piece, “Offertory,” before she sends her readers off into the unresolved void, “careening along in the only direction there is to go in,” Hempel offers us her secret to creating such powerful, intimate, and timeless commentaries: “Because a human being made this.”

Hempel, Amy. The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. New York: Scribner, 2006. Print.

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