You're probably wondering where all the "fiction" is---I've been wandering---so I thought I'd share this little review. I wrote it for a summer intro-to-fiction class. It could use some editing, but I'm sleepy, so I'm just shaking it off and setting it out to air.

Don't laugh, or better, do.

Goodnight : )


On Amy Hempel’s The Dog of the Marriage

(me, 7/2/07)

Amy Hempel’s collection of short stories, The Dog of the Marriage, is like a short series of small windows into large lives, lives belonging to women only slightly different from one another. At times, reading through the collection, it felt as though one character, one self was almost progressing into the next, also seeping into the reader---myself, as I continued down the trail.

All of these stories are written in the first person. There is a sort of flickering identity shared between the characters in this book, hard to put your finger on, and personally I suspect that this unifying “essence” is something from the life-breath of Hempel herself. The voice changes but is never unrecognizable, and I found this continuity to be very satisfying. Reading this book was like getting to look at one thing from nine subtly different insides, so that when the time came to part with the stories, I truly felt like something had been swapped between the complete work that I had read and myself.

These stories are about relationships, not-so-strangely enough. Besides the continuum of characterization already mentioned, the other element that brings these stories so close together is the unifying theme of “desire.” Hempel prefaces the collection with this hauntingly evocative little passage, an expression of the “thing” that these stories look at:

But the greatest desire of all is to be
In the dream of another,
To feel a slight pull, like reins,
To feel a heavy pull, like chains.
—Yehuda Amichai

After finishing Hempel’s book I felt as though I understood Amichai’s sentiment in a much deeper, more complex way than when I turned the page to the first story: these stories are about the need to be loved (needed, wanted, desired) and what happens when we’re not, what it means to hold on and what it means to let go. What it means when we are held onto, what it means when we are let go of.

Some of these stories, like “Jesus is Waiting,” “Reference #388475848-5” (which takes the epistolary form) and “Offertory” examine what it is to try to reach out, to come together.

The narrator in “Jesus is Waiting” desires unabashedly and without reason until a point of absurd, fragile beauty is reached. Maybe all of the stories in this collection are about that, in some way.

Offertory” and “The Afterlife” in particular also seem to ask not only what wanting is, but what memory is, how memory serves to tie us to ourselves and to others—how these old memories, these old desires can either come between or hold together, and what the consequences are of each.

Beach Town” seems to look at the ways in which we overhear the lives of others. Although the narrator does not really indulge in self-reflection, I think that this story asks us to reflect on how this kind of “taking in” can affect our own lives. After all, that’s what we do when we read a story (eavesdrop on the neighbors, watch a film, remember an old lover): we “overhear” someone else’s life, and hope to be changed in some way by doing so.

The namesake story of this collection, “The Dog of the Marriage,” is in itself a smaller series of even more fluidly connected lives. These four small pieces add up to a single expression that examines guilt and regret and a feeling that is not quite sentimental enough to be loneliness. I would describe the feeling expressed and explored within these stories as being more like an almost clinical sort of solitude, a solitude that comes with trying to turn certain things off within yourself, with trying to learn to feel resigned to things, or pretending you’re not. The “dog” in these marriages is not always of the canine variety, and the actual dogs are often far more faithful than the people. The “marriages” are usually anything but.

It is not always a comfortable or enjoyable experience, being drawn into the minds of these women, but it is always a stirring experience. “The Uninvited” is about what it is to be “loved” not just badly, but violently. What happens when the need (desire) to be loved becomes twisted within a person, and what it’s like to have that twisted desire forced upon you, on your body. The story is narrated by a 50 year-old rape counselor who has herself recently been raped by an acquaintance. She is afraid she might be pregnant, but has not followed the advice that she has given so many others over the years: she has not reported her attacker. She is feeling guilty for falling victim to her attacker even though she has spent her life teaching others not to. She doesn’t want to have to explain that she instinctively knew how to respond in order to save her life...that she pretended to love the rapist so he wouldn’t kill her.

In “The Uninvited,” Hempel uses an old film, from which the story takes its name, to draw unstated parallels and bring us into the narrator’s usually unspoken inner thoughts and conflicts. Just as the narrator wonders “to whom the title refers [in the movie]—to the ghosts or to the guests,” we are left thinking about not only the rapist she made the mistake of inviting into her home, but the seed she fears may have been planted in her womb.

The story “Memoir” lasts only one sentence, and I think it sums up with a beautiful succinctness what this collection is saying better than I ever could:

Just once in my life—oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?

This speaks to the feeling I got from these stories that they constitute a cycle or progression, and maybe to the idea that there are no beginnings or ends in this collection, only different kinds of desire.

I remember that some of the stories I’ve read from Hempel’s previous collections seemed to leave me with a sort of welling-up, while most of these made me feel a kind of settling-in, a “what-is-this?” digestion more than a “that-was-that” emotion. Most of these stories seem to avoid (surpass?) the traditional or basic idea of what story and plot are. They can be fragmentary, they move around in time. They have very open endings and often the crisis “moment” actually seems to be the entirety of the story. Resolution usually seems to be something that we as the readers need to reach for, instead of having it handed to us.

Hempel leaves us at just the tip of something with each of these. We must take the conflict within ourselves as we read each story (and she makes this easy with her attention to detail, voice and moment) in order to be able to understand the inertia of each piece. It is only by taking an active role in the experience that these stories “offer” up that we are able to see where it is that Hempel is pointing, and that is one of the many wonderful things about this wonderful collection of short stories.



PS---By the way, my cat threw up on this book (just a hairball) soon after I finished reading it, and I was really, really upset with him about it. After stomping around the living room for a while, I washed the dustcover, and I kept it. Now there's a funny little stain. Don't judge. Boots is forgiven.

1 comment:

Ms. Sushi said...

It's a well-known fact that cats only throw up on things they like. Nice review!

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