Thematic Development in Amy Hempel

Thematic Development in Amy Hempel’s
“BEG, SL TOG, INC, CONT, REP”
(Begin, Slip Together, Increase, Continue, Repeat)

“It’s in the sentences.”
Yo, Rick. I think you got it wrong, man. In your intro to Amy’s Collected Stories book, you know?
Well, at least partially wrong. It’s in the words Amy Hempel chooses to present her minimalist fiction, before the sentences, the words she chooses to weave into the sentences. Or should we say knit into the sentences? The words are the basic units, even more basic than the sentences. And minimalist, realistic writing is all about “basic” if it is about anything at all. True, a sentence is a series of words presented in some grammatically correct, logical order — but the words came first, the sentences came after.
There is probably an argument continuing somewhere in the academic and critical corners, louder some days than others, about whether or not a minimal realist’s short story is as good as, say, a Faulkner or an Updike short story. Somewhere out there people are probably arguing that any story less than 7500 words that doesn’t average more than 30 words a sentence is “not as good as” a real short story, perhaps not even a legitimate story form at all.
In “BEG, SL TOG, INC, CONT, REP” at least, Amy Hempel proves all these people wrong.
The story begins to draw the reader in through the title. OK, I knew from Anderson and Hemingway and Carver that I had to engage in minimalistic stories, but what the hell is this gibberish? Some astute knitters might not be thrown, but the title itself sends a message to many of us: This is not your ordinary story, it says. We find out later the language used in the title is a code for a specialized and/or secret language — knitting instructions. And we find later still that this code appears to the main character “like a song,” like music, aesthetic expression, art itself. It does have some resemblance to the Middle Earth languages of Tolkien…
There is indeed more here than meets the eye, but because of the author’s style we have to work hard to see it. Minimalist fiction to me is like the jar to the monk. First he puts in stones, and asks us if the jar is full. We say Yes. Then he puts in pebbles, then sand, then water, and asks us after every element, is the jar full? And of course we say yes, and now the jar is indeed full, but so much more so than what we first thought. Minimalist fiction is the rocks; we the readers have to supply the other stuff that goes around it, the filler, ourselves. How the author leads us to add the pebbles, sand and water and maybe even the jar itself, like the monk leading us through the jar example, is the writing technique I’m talking about here. More than a writing technique, it reflects a view of reality that not everyone has.
Hempel opens “BEG, SL TOG, INC, CONT, REP” with this: (p. 41)
The mohair was scratchy, the stria too bulky, but the home-spun tweed was right for a small frame. I bought slate-blue skeins softened with flecks of pink, and size-10 needles for a sweater that was warm but light. The pattern I chose was a two-tone V-neck with an optional six-stitch cable up the front. Pullovers mess the hair, but I did not want to buttonhole the first time out.

Once we’ve consulted the knitting dictionary, we discover that this paragraph is filled with natural images: mohair and stria are types of animal hair, tweed is a wool. Not any wool, mind you — “home-spun” wool. Slate of course is a type of rock. So Hempel is foreshadowing that the story is about something natural, something essential to life — as we later discover, the story is about life itself, or perhaps more accurately, the taking of life by choice, for “convenience,” because one has the power to. There is literally a battle of right and wrong looming here, and the “small frame” suggests a baby or at least power over something smaller, which is of course steeped in irony immediately following “home-spun tweed.” “Small frame” could also suggest a “small frame of reference,” relating to the narrator’s lack of knowledge and experience.
The narrator (“I”) is the picture of practicality with a splash of color (sight, prism, light again, natural light); the needles applied to tweed result in a sweater for a “small frame” that is “warm but light” (goodness), and probably feminine (“softened with flecks of pink”), perhaps to dull the harsh ramifications of nature’s power. The word choice and language itself, is almost exclusively feminine. One is next alerted to the power of the narrator: “I bought…,” “I chose…,” “optional six-stitch cable up the front” (more choice). “Pullovers mess the hair, but I did not want to buttonhole” — things are going to be messy, she knows, but the narrator didn’t want added complications. “Buttonhole” is a technique, but also perhaps implyies social conformity?. And we find out that the narrator is a knitting virgin, i.e., this is her “first time out.” And if we step back to a thirty-thousand foot look at the obvious, we have here a narrator that wants to make something useful, meaningful, simple, natural, not complicated — and we ask ourselves, why?
Hempel has us engaged now, set up. She continues with this second paragraph: (p. 41)
From a needlework book, I learned to cast on. In the test piece, I got the gauge and correct tension. Knit and purl came naturally, as though my fingers had been rubbed in spider-webs at birth. The sliding of the needles was as rhythmic as water.

In these few short sentences Hempel suggests work and learning, perhaps ritual in the sense that knitting is repetitive, but something more, too: Our narrator has to learn to knit from a book, i.e., intellectually, abstractly. There is no one to show her how, by example, concretely — why is that? Her own mother or at least one other woman was there presumably to “rub her fingers with spider-webs at birth.” Where are the other women in our narrator’s life now? This passage also suggests contrast, tension, a split, from the learning (abstract) to the natural ability (“knit and purl came naturally…”). This suggests the narrator’s current state of mind and being. Plus, while abortion like knitting may sound okay conceptually, abstractly (“from a needlework book”), it is a different thing altogether to actually have it done to you and your baby, something — un-natural, especially to this narrator who, by the way, is never named, and therefore could be said to represent all women.
While it isn’t rocket science, knitting is a higher-level skill, certainly learning itself suggests intellect and conceptualization. Which makes the examples following, “fingers rubbed in spider-webs at birth” and “rhythmic as water” also ironic; we could have a knitting prodigy here who never would have discovered her skill. But these examples also carry on the theme of natural order, of mystery and healing (spiders, spider webs, silk like yarn, wool) and rhythm, also a part of ritual (sliding, rhythmic), and life-giving water, “rhythmic as water.”
In the third paragraph, Hempel rewards us for sticking with her this far, and spells it out for us: (p. 41)
Learning to knit was the obvious thing. The separation of tangled threads, the working-together of raveled ends into something tangible and whole — this mending was as confounding as the groom who drives into a stop sign on the way to his wedding. Because symptoms mean exactly what they are. What about the woman whose empty hand won’t close because she cannot grasp that her child is gone?

Our narrator is “on the mend.” Her reaction to the abortion (“the procedure,” p. 43) is “confounding.” True, we don’t know exactly whether her abortion was her choice or the result of a miscarriage or something else — although given the “choice” themes earlier it appears to me that her procedure was voluntary. But Hempel isn’t going to spell out everything for us — that would make it too easy, too simple, too unambiguous. Hempel walks us through the narrator’s journey of healing by way of Dale Anne, who has both had abortion(s) and is now having a child, and under the capable gaze of Dale’s husband, Dr. Diamond, who is not really a doctor yet who “has had a buoyant feeling of fate since he learned Freud died on the same day he was born” (p. 44).
Through her healing (perhaps in order to heal?), our narrator also discovers Ingrid, the owner of the knitting shop “in the residential section” (p. 43), the Viking goddess who directs knitters to the natural elements like wool over synthetics (fakes, imitations), and helps women through the hard spots: “There were always four or five women at Ingrid’s round oak table, knitting through a stretch they would not risk alone” (p. 43).
It is Ingrid that lifts this story up to reach its full potential. Besides being a stark contrast to Dale Anne, the “modern” woman with all the conveniences (air conditioning, for instance) and latest utensils and junk food who has a baby at her convenience, and to Dr. Diamond, the modern almost-a-doctor solution for all of our ills, Ingrid is the narrator’s link to Fair Isle: (p. 45)

I arrived at the yarn shop as Ingrid turned over the CLOSED sign to OPEN. I had come to buy Shetland wool for a Fair Isle sweater. I felt nothing would engage my full attention more than a pattern of ancient Scottish symbols and alternate bands of delicate design. Every stitch in every color is related to the one above, below, and to either side.
I chose the natural colors of Shetland sheep — the chalky brown of the Moorit, the blackish brown of the black sheep, fawn, gray and pinky beige from a mixture of Moorit and white. I held the wool to my nose, but Ingrid said it was fifty years since the women of Fair Isle dressed the yarn with fish oil.
She said the yarn came from Sheep Rock, the best pasture on Fair Isle. It is a ten-acre plot that is four hundred feet up a cliff, Ingrid said. “Think what a man has to go through to harvest the wool.”
I was willing to feel an obligation to the yarn, and to the hardy Scots who supplied it. There was heritage there, and I could keep it alive with my hands.

“There was heritage there, and I could keep it alive with my hands.” Talk about mending! Ingrid is the guide, a guide to the past, to a heritage that Dale Anne is not. Both play a critical part in the narrator’s healing, but Ingrid is the strength, Dale Anne is the humor; she even helps Dale Anne pick out some wool near the end of the story when she too wants to take up knitting. Ingrid is there to help women through the hard spots, the hard times — to guide them through their initiation into womanhood. There is even a nod of acknowledgement to those “hardy Scots” that helped bring them into this world, something we men are prone to forget…
Yes, this is an initiation story, a Jungian archetype in and of itself. The three major themes, knitting, loss, and the heritage of women, are brought together skillfully at the end of the story by Amy Hempel in her unflappable style: (p. 52)
The worst of it is over now, and I can’t say that I am glad. Lose that sense of loss — you have gone and lost something else. But the body moves toward health. The mind, too, in steps. One step at a time. Ask a mother who has just lost a child. How many children do you have? “Four,” she will say. “— three,” and years later, “Three,” she will say, “—four.”
It’s the little steps that help. Weather, breakfast, crossing with the light — sometimes it is all the pleasure I can bear to sleep, and to know that on a rack in the bath, damp wool is pinned to dry.
Dale Anne thinks she would like to learn to knit…Use a pure wool, Ingrid says. Use wool in a grown-up shade. And don’t boast of your achievement or you’ll be making things for the neighborhood.
On Fair Isle there are only five women left who knit. There is not enough lichen left growing on the island for them to dye their yarn. But knitting machines can’t produce their designs, and they keep on, these women, working the undyed colors of the sheep.
I wait for Dale Anne in the room with the patterns. The songs in these books are like lullabies to me.
K tog rem st. Knit remaining stitches.
Cast off loosely.

It strikes me as I write this that the knitting instructions themselves, au natural as seen in the catalogs, songs that they are, are reminiscent of an old language, something one might find in Tolkien, a fairy language sung by the elves. The ending is poetic, it is complete, it is full of the humor and innuendo that marks Hempel’s style. And we have been prepared to accept it through the hands of a skilled artist. Like the Fair Isle pattern itself, it is:

…a pattern of ancient Scottish symbols and alternate bands of delicate design. Every stitch in every color is related to the one above, below, and to either side. (Wikepedia)

Yo. Rick. It’s in the words, man, the words.

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

Moody, Rick. “On Amy Hempel.” Introduction. The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. New York: Scribner, 2006.

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