What is most striking about “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” widely considered one of Amy Hempel’s finest and most moving stories, is its compression and its pain. The writing here is terse; much is left out. The parts left out are what give the story its emotional power. This same minimalist style is apparent in the other stories in Hempel’s first collection, Reasons to Live, and in her second, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, as well. “In the Cemetery” weighs in as one of the longest stories in either book, some of which are only a page or two in length. The other stories, too, focus predominantly on characters struggling with loss and grief.
Minimalism in American literature can be traced back to the early works of Ernest Hemingway, who believed that what is stated overtly in a story should be just the “tip of the iceberg.” In his 1964 book, A Moveable Feast, he proposed a “new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted parts would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” In “In the Cemetery,” what is omitted is key: The narrator does not discuss her friend’s impending death with her then or ever; in fact, after the narrator leaves the hospital, the next mention of the friend is that she was “moved to the cemetery.” Discussion of the friend’s death, before and after the fact, is completely omitted from the story.
The credo of the contemporary minimalist movement, according to critic Arthur Saltzman, is delineated best by Raymond Carver in his essay “On Writing”‘:”It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling power.”
Certain objects in “In the Cemetery” do carry enormous weight—the friend’s leg “you did not want to see,” her mask with the bottom strings hanging loose, the second bed—but the real “immense, even startling power” of “In the Cemetery” comes from its use of commonplace language to talk about—or rather, to not talk about—devastating aspects of human experience.
Carver’s essay was published in 1983, at the height of minimalism’s popularity, the same year “In the Cemetery” first appeared in TriQuarterly magazine. A debate over the merits of minimalism eventually ensued, which, using the words of Saltzman, can be framed thus: is minimalism giving us the essence of human experience, “the richness of a glimpse,” or does minimalism so boil down the world that it “loses the broth?” Though the style remains controversial, Hempel’s critics praise her precision: “Reading Hempel is like reading a heartstopping telegram,” critic Marcia Tager wrote about Reasons to Live.
Just as the narrator of “In the Cemetery” abandons her dying friend, many of the other stories in Reasons to Live feature characters struggling to cope, characters whose responses to death also seem odd or somehow misguided. In “Nashville Gone to Ashes,” the narrator, who has lost both her husband and her dog, realizes that she feels jealous of her pets, that she had to compete with them for her husband’s love. The narrator of “San Francisco,” a younger sister who had been the one to discover her mother’s dead body, now derives satisfaction from tormenting her older sister who wants the mother’s watch. In “Going” the narrator has a car accident on flat, dry road that “knocked two days out of [his] head,” and “can’t even remember all [he’s] forgotten”; only in the last paragraph does the reader learn that his mother has died, that somehow the crash and the death are connected.
In “Beg, SI Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep,” the relationship between the two female characters is reminiscent of the relationship between the narrator and her friend in “In the Cemetery,” but in “Beg, SI Tog” the circumstances are reversed; this time the narrator, rather than the friend, is the one directly suffering. The narrator, who has had an abortion, ceases all activity except knitting sweaters for the friend, who is pregnant: “an excess of sweaters—a kind of precaution, a rehearsal against disaster.” The narrator in “Beg, SI Tog” has nightmares, and then accidents—”but the part that hurt was never the part that got hurt.” In a sense this narrator seems to be paying penance for the friendship betrayed in “In the Cemetery.” Although the immediate situation here (the friend’s pregnancy) is ostensibly a joyous one, in this story, too, the narrator fails to support her friend: upon hearing that the friend has given birth, for example, the narrator stops in at the nursery briefly to see that the newborn was there and then “went straight home.” Like the narrator in “In the Cemetery” who is able to offer her friend only trivia, this narrator is able to offer her friend only sweaters, many more sweaters than the baby could possibly wear.
Like “In the Cemetery,” the other stories in this collection display the classic characteristics of minimalism: plots that play out over a narrow time frame; simple language; short, declarative, present tense sentences; and first-person narrators. While Hempel’s characters are rarely the societal outcasts who populate much of minimalist fiction, their lives do tend to be consistent with another dominant minimalist theme: the rootlessness and shallowness of contemporary American existence. Everyone on the beach in “In the Cemetery” is “tranquilized, numb or asleep”; the narrator wants only to jump in her convertible and drive it”too fast down the coast highway,” away from her friend and the site of the pain.
The stories in Hempel’s second collection display many of these same minimalist characteristics, and again many of the characters struggle to cope with loss. A difference in this collection, though, is the occasional presence of an authorial intrusion, an attribute generally not associated with minimalism. Every now and then the first person narrator makes a comment that sounds more like a reflection from an author looking in on the story than the thoughts of a character looking out. At the end of”And Lead Us Not Into Penn Station,” after reeling off a dozen or so anecdotes about the violence and despair of urban existence, the narrator (who sounds like the author speaking) stops: “I don’t know what to say about this. / am as cut off from meaning and completion as all of these crippled people.”
Whether or not the first person narrator in Hempel’s second collection is at times Hempel herself, Hempel admits that her work is very autobiographical. What is immediately apparent in comparing “In the Cemetery” to written accounts of Hempel’s own life is the distinctive similarities between the two. In an interview with Michael Schumacher, Hempel acknowledges that her best friend died when Hempel was a college student in California; like the narrator in “In the Cemetery,” not only did Hempel not attend the funeral, she “barely made it to the hospital.”
In fact, it was after the death of her best friend that Hempel left California for New York, enrolled in a writing class with Gordon Lish, and wrote “In the Cemetery,” which later became her first published story, in response to Lish’s directive to write about an instance of personal failure.
Despite Hempel’s move to New York, California remains the natural choice for the setting of her work. The narrator of “In the Cemetery” worries about earthquakes when she goes to the beach. In California, says Hempel, “it’s very easy to have your worst fears made tangible in the form of natural disaster.” California works well as a setting for other reasons, too. New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani compares Hempel to Joan Didion for her use of “the tacky, ahistorical landscape of Southern California, with its parking garages, fake Spanish colonial condominiums and fast-food joints.” Note the flamingo pink wrought-iron terraces of the Palm Royale, where the narrator of”In the Cemetery” stops for the newspaper and observes graffiti in the lobby which she later quotes to her friend. Hollywood fiction is a genre in itself that can be traced back to America’s movement westward, based on a vision of Hollywood born of “external success and inner failure,” according to critic Jonas Spatz. Certainly this applies to the narrator of”In the Cemetery,” whose need to make everything look all right on the outside despite deep feelings of inner failure, can be seen toward the end of the story when she muses, “It is just possible I will say I stayed the night. And who is there that can say I did not?”
Before she leaves the hospital the narrator sees how she has let language transform their relationship, referring to herself mockingly as “The Best Friend” when she makes her decision to leave. While she felt slighted by her friend’s earlier use of the impersonal article “the,” now she does not even feel worthy of it. When the friend dies, the narrator shields herself from having to acknowledge this reality by saying only that she was “moved to the cemetery.”
“In the Cemetery” is ultimately a story about the limits of language. Like the mother chimp who is trained to sign, the narrator and her friend train themselves to speak only in trivia—like signing, an alternate and artificial form of language—to speak only about things that do not matter. The substitution here of trivia for what is real renders the story the ideal minimalist marriage of form and content: one-liners substitute for authentic communication, and what is omitted, to harken back to Hemingway, becomes most important of all. Like the protective mask that the friend ultimately flings off in rage, this artificial language can shield the characters from—but never prevent—the threat of the friend’s imminent death.
Just as the mother chimp continues to sign to her dead baby, the narrator continues her reliance on trivia after the friend dies. This, in fact, becomes all she can do, the only way she can think. She remembers “only the useless things” she hears. After the loss of their loved ones, both the mother chimp and the narrator keep up their ineffectual, meaningless language, unable to stop, “fluent now in the language of grief.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Amy Hempel, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.
Judy Sobeloff, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.