When you go do it like this, they know you're spent. 13 down, no more to go, sorry Columbia, for this:
Dear Columbia University
When I started my critical paper for entrance to your program, I began to cheat. I had in my possession a gently-worn copy of The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. It’s edged in red and white, and still bears the purchase sticker from where I bought it (Borders on the Upper West Side, a steal at fifteen dollars plus tax). I adore it. But more, it was published in the past ten years, and in my genre—fiction! I told this to myself as I happily re-read on the lurching subway, fingering the pages, trying to be stoic when I felt the pangs her sentences invoked. I formulated grand plans. And then I re-read your clearly printed instructions on what we were to write.
Alas, the stories in the first three quarters of the book were not published in the last ten years, never mind written then, and so they could not count. What she wrote which I thought most spoke to me was what she wrote when she was my age, and I had a response to it all right. How she changed, and how she changed me. What it all meant. It would have made a great critical essay, in my mind.
But it’s The Dog of The Marriage that qualifies, and it is that which is pertinent to this essay, and now I realize, most pertinent to me. How to begin? With the depiction of rapes, the fear every day at being a woman, with the long shores of shuttered lake houses? With the seasons that followed, the dogs that arrived, with the husbands that left? There is endless departure, departures without permission, pervasive in her stories. Each loss flows lyrically into the next, as if each were a chapter in a well-crafted novel. A novel of loss—of love, life, youth, beauty, summer. There is sexual violence, both terrifying and thrilling. The narrator—whoever she is, Hempel, a collection of facets, her friends and my imagination—speaks the same language no matter where she arrives.
She is surrounded by people, by animals, by machines, and she is alone, with a trowel, in a man’s shirt. She is alone even in the arms of her lover as she invents a lifetime of sexual fantasies for a man who will not love in “Offertory.” She is alone as she watches the revolving door of suitors in her widowed father’s life, and when she and he argue, without words, on what time means in “The Afterlife.” She is alone as she dips the pregnancy wick into the crystal scotch glass as she recalls her favorite film and confuses who is the ghost in the movie and in her own life in “The Uninvited.” Sometimes she is irate when alone, as she is when penning the parking ticket rebuttal in “Reference #388475848-5.” Sometimes she is quiet when alone, when she remembers her mother’s death and looks upon her x-ray in the doctor’s office in “What Are The White Things?” She is on the wrong side of fifty at each moment alone. There are pets that nuzzle and boxed turtles that die on nets spread over strawberries, there are men who float in and those who she will not love. She is a competent driver, and she drives into and out of every situation, not a single one unfolds without her specific self-aware presence, and oftentimes, her actual car. She has the sensibility of a poet. There is a quiet suspension of disbelief here, those who are not the narrator speak in near-couplets (and she often turns a phrase on its head) and time is fluid—we never seem to start at the beginning. Often we’re at the end as in the title story, or in the middle in “Jesus is Waiting.” In “Memoir,” we begin nowhere, in void. And of course, that is precisely the point. Hempel may not have invented the mantra “every word counts,” but she is the gold standard in this collection. White space frightens some writers. Others must see the page the way a sculptor sees marble, and carve out from one block of it. If roughness, incompleteness remains, that is part of the whole. It’s tempting to point towards greater metaphor here, naturally, about life, but for respect for Hempel, and your time, I won’t try to make it. The Dog of The Marriage, however blunt, does not make me, the reader, scared of this inevitable time in a woman’s life. I sigh when reading it. Sometimes I want more than anything to be old and full of stories, which is a strange thing perhaps. Something that is rare, and that this work does.
As for how she does it, I understand that is the point of a proper critical essay. Also, not to use “I”. I was taught the critical essay should read, “The writer’s purpose is to do X through Y and accomplishes it using Z. Here are the number of ways in which it is done. Here is the symbolism. Here is God. Here is greed.” But, when speaking of Hempel, how can one do this in an ordinary way? In Rick Moody’s introduction he asserts, “Who gives a shit how long the book takes,” and now, here I am, cursing in my essay. It’s entirely wrong. But it is my response, my honest one. Hempel writes tightly—her characters are so compelling it’s as if the words aren’t even there, and yet, it’s all about the words, too. The sentences, as Moody says. She repeats, how she repeats so many things! And yet, it’s all over in a flash, a novel in stories, and it was short and it was all about longing. It was masterful, and it was heartbreaking. I had the idea that while writing this I’d somehow emulate her style. I’d write, critiquing Amy Hempel is like…and I would say something multi-layered and clever and just end there. Without the summation in words. But she does what I cannot. I don’t know how she does it. I realize that she does, and I see where and when. How to do it myself, I hope to learn in your program. So I’ll end my response with her words. The last in the collection, on the last page. “Unimprovable,” he says.
If only the same could be said for this essay.