Why the short story writer Amy Hempel should be a literary star

Hempel is already a star in the US, but her fame hasn’t quite reached across the Atlantic yet

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“That reminds me of when I knew a romance was over.” So begins “The Quiet Car”, the 14th of 15 stories in Amy Hempel’s mesmerising new collection. “I had not seen this fellow for 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.” Here are Hempel’s characteristic traits: setting you down into something that seems already to have begun; a confiding tone; a wry humour. The narrator is a little adrift, as Hempel’s narrators often are, renting a falling-down house for the summer, not quite belonging, looking at life side-ways. The story, like many here, is very short, the language compact, elegant and plain, yet somehow along the way working quiet miracles of observation and understanding.

Hempel is a literary star in her native United States, where writers of short stories are given their due. Her fame hasn’t quite reached across the Atlantic yet, though the same could once have been said of Lydia Davis and George Saunders. She publishes sparingly: her first collection, Reasons to Live, appeared in 1985; this new book is her fifth collection. She is also the editor – with another wonderful American writer of short fiction, Jim Shepard – of Unleashed: Poems by Writers’ Dogs, which includes contributions from writers such as Denis Johnson, Edward Albee and John Irving – or rather, by their dogs. Dogs are a recurrent theme in her work – her last collection, published a decade ago, is The Dog of the Marriage – and one of the most powerful stories here, “A Full-Service Shelter”, seems, on the surface, to be simply the narrator’s account of working at a canine shelter.

But it is, rather, an incantation of compassion. The “full service” in question is death, and the nameless narrator negotiates a slippery line between rescue and resignation. The narrator is the one who makes up the beds of the doomed dogs “with beach towels and bath mats and Scooby-Doo fleece blankets still warm from industrial dryers”. There is nothing maudlin about this story, however, and that is another of Hempel’s mysterious gifts: her pieces are full of feeling, but there is an objectivity to the dissection of that feeling which keeps sentimentality safely at bay.

Hempel’s work has the staccato structure of authentic thought. “The Chicane” has the swerving rhythm its title would suggest; its narrator recalls her aunt Lauryn’s troubled relationships with men (a French film star, a former racing-car driver). “When the film with the French actor opened in the valley, I went to the second showing of the night,” the piece begins. There is something moving and surprising in this willed engagement with difficult memories; she goes to see the film, knowing, or part-knowing, the emotion it will provoke. The resolution offered is satisfying for the reader, but by no means neat: in a recent interview Hempel said: “I patrol stories  –  my own and my students’  –  for bow-tied endings. They always sound fake, and it’s never a goal to tie off what people are up against.” 

In “The Correct Grip”, which is barely two pages long, the narrator receives a phone call from the wife of a stranger who broke into her apartment and attacked her: the reader is not witness to the attack, only its strange aftermath. “There is something so convenient about rescue,” the narrator thinks: here is a bow-tie Hempel will not offer her characters or her readers.

The final story, “Cloudland”, is by far the longest: nearly a novella. The narrator has had to leave her job at a private school in Manhattan; she is living in a crumbling house in Florida, and as her days pass by she is drawn back, again and again, to the recollection of the baby she gave up for adoption at 18. This moving story unfolds with a stately power; an end-note informs the reader of its source. At one point the narrator makes an appointment with a psychic; the psychic is likely to tell her she will fall in love, she thinks. “But I don’t want to fall in love in the sense that a psychic might mean it. I don’t want a romance, if that’s what she predicts. But love – sure, keep it coming. In another form. Not a man and not a woman. An animal, a place, a cause. I would like to fall in love again with any and all of these.”

The forms of Hempel’s fiction are rich and compelling, each story a revelation of fractured grace. Sure, keep it coming. 

Sing To It: New Stories
Amy Hempel
Scribner, 160pp, £19.46

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 31 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Theresa May’s toxic legacy