There’s Something About Amy:
Humor and Anecdotes in
The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
Amy Hempel’s stories have a very distinctive, realistic minimalist style. Part of her appeal is the way she weaves humor in and out of her stories, especially through anecdotes, plays on words or phrases, and “jokes of the day.” This stylistic tendency is exhibited prominently in The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel.
However, like so many of us, our strengths are sometimes also our weaknesses.
The power of Hempel’s use of humor is shown often. Take this short passage from “The Afterlife”: (p. 368)
One woman was impatient with his mourning, another seemed excited by it. She didn’t wear underwear when she came to visit; I knew because I heard her tell him. He told me she sent pictures of herself naked; he was Midwestern enough to be stunned.
This humor works because it is part of a larger character development, and in fact offers insight into at least three characters: the mourning father, the caring daughter, and the “composite” lady callers. “Midwestern enough” is a great way to say conservative or prudish without actually saying it, and Amy’s New York audience especially would find this funny.
Here’s another good example of Hempel’s use of humor from “The Dog of the Marriage,” Part 2: (p. 360)
Lynne is at home when the confused doorman phones up to say her dog came back by himself. He tells her the dog walked right through the lobby and into the elevator and that he — the doorman — pressed the button for their floor and sent him up.
Laura gets the dog inside, then runs out to find Whit.
She follows the sound of a siren, and finds him just as the ambulance pulls up.
Clare looked at me as though she had been watching a performance. Which she had. I could not tell the story enough times. An observant friend had remarked that, “Those who can’t repeat the past are condemned to remember it.”
Here Hempel uses what has become a trademark of hers: Taking a common phrase and switching the words around for her own use. Here she switches the famous phrase “those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it” to “those who can’t repeat the past are condemned to remember it” to show a central aspect of her main character’s guilt in giving a friend a stray dog that has caused her husband to have an accident and be crippled. The reference is telling; the scene involves the narrator telling a friend (Clare) about the misfortunes of Lynne (a previous neighbor and friend of theirs), which feeds the stereotype of women gossiping and chattering, as well as bringing home the faulty assumption of the narrator: “I could not tell the story enough times.” No, she is condemned to remember her guilt (correctly placed or not) unless she can repeat the story enough times, which, of course, she can’t. Again, this humor works especially well because it is an integral part of the character development, an extension of the character development built up throughout the story, even though it is placed dangerously close to the end of the story, i.e., at a place of high importance in a short story.
Hempel also sometimes has a character actually tell a joke within a story. Take this scene about Chatty’s “gentleman caller” from the novella “Tumble Home”: (p. 290)
He was trained to get us overexcited,” Chatty said. “By keeping himself still? By holding the best part back, and suggesting that. The best actors do that.”
“Three dogs are put in a room,” Warren says, and the rest of us hunker down.
“An architect’s dog, a doctor’s dog, and an actor’s dog. Each dog is given a pile of bones and told they’ll be given one hour.”
Chatty blots her lips as Warren continues: “The architect’s dog arranges his bones into a Cape Cod saltbox house. The doctor’s dog arranges his bones into separate piles by species. The actor’s dog —“
“Hand me that eyebrow pencil?” Karen says.
“The actor’s dog eats all the bones, fucks the other two dogs, and asks to go home early.”
“He’s not an actor anymore,” Chatty says. “He teaches. In a university.”
Suddenly I am no longer jealous of her. I wilt at the thought of the earnest exchange of information, explanations of the way things work and who invented what.
Again this humor works, mainly because it is part of a longer piece, because it reveals attributes of several of the central characters (not just one), and because it is an integrated and balanced part of the greater whole of the story. We get a sense not only of the group’s assessment of Chatty’s gentleman caller, but also of the daily interactions of the four main characters, their indifference to Warren at times (the outsider, the male in the woman’s circle, “hand me the eyebrow pencil”), and a resolution of conflict for our main character prompted by the scene (“I am no longer jealous of her. I wilt at the thought…”).
Hempel also often uses a turn of phrase or slip of the tongue as an integral part of her stories, often as titles to create interest and draw us in. In “And Lead Us Not Into Penn Station,” she builds a story of misfits surrounding New York’s famous train depot, all “tempted” and/or corrupted by some vice or other. Sometimes, as in “The New Lodger,” she uses a slip of the tongue of an over-heard conversation (should be “the new lager” that a bartender asked about) to build a story of a returning but misplaced visitor to a small town. In “At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom,” she uses a series of infomercial phrases regarding cases of animal abuse and suffering around the world to reveal the inner workings (and ultimately fatal sympathetic weakness) of a caretaking woman.
For the most part, these techniques work very well for Hempel. Sometimes, though, they fall short, and worse, distract from a good story just by being there. Take the ending of an otherwise great story, “The Uninvited”: (pp. 334-335)
One of the assistants let me in when I arrived. Several handlers were already present, one for each of the dogs that would participate in the experiment.
The assistant signaled for a black Lab to be brought forward. The dog stood quietly. The assistant took a metal choke chain from her pocket. She moved to the dog’s rear end. She stood above the dog and held the chain collar from one end so that it hung a few inches above the dog’s hips.
“Keep her still?” the assistant said.
In a few moments, the chain began to move slowly from side to side, about an inch in each direction over the dog’s hips.
:It’s not scientific,” said the assistant, “but it’s about one hundred percent accurate in determining pregnancy. She’ll have her sonogram to be sure, but if she wasn’t pregnant, the chain would have swung north-south. Something to do with the magnetic field.”
The assistant handed me the chain and said, “Would you like to try it?”
I said I would.
I gave her back the chain.
I got down on all fours.
This is a wonderful piece of writing, in and of itself. However, at the close of a compound and complex story where we have themes of helper dogs, rape crisis centers, rape itself, pregnancy tests, and themes of uninvited guests and ghosts and mourning, it just doesn’t work for me — especially as the ending. I get the continuation of the narrator’s concern about her pregnancy test, I get the concern toward rape and unwanted pregnancy, I get the relationships of the narrator to the helper dogs and those who need help — but to me this humorous scene isn’t appropriate as the ending. It is a scene, a good scene, but not an adequate ending for all that has been built up and all that this story could be. I get the feeling Hempel couldn’t resist going for the funny bone one last time? To me this ending cheapens the story and all the good writing that came before, which is the chief danger of interjecting humor and anecdotes into your writing.
Perhaps it comes down to risk. Using humor in stories like Hempel does, consistently and at times as a critical pivot point of characters and stories, is inherently risky. One risks that the joke or humor itself will stick out and overshadow the story line or character or theme and detract from or cheapen the story itself.
My personal analogy is to baseball. Attempting to steal third base with nobody out or one out, or attempting to bunt with two strikes (an out if not successful) is great only when it works; otherwise these techniques are not taught or recommended because the chance of success is small, and the risk to the game is too great. Attempting to steal third takes away a scoring opportunity and erases a sacrifice opportunity if not successful. Bunting foul with two strikes takes the bat out of your hands by your own doing. Unfortunately, these techniques are also alluring because of the risk, and work just often enough to be tempting.
That “something about Amy” is that most of the time, she is successful with integrating humor in her stories — very successful. At other times, however, like in the ending of “The Uninvited,” her strength becomes her weakness, and she can’t resist taking that extra shot, when she risks ruining an otherwise great story. Humor, like all other story elements, works best when it is an integral and balanced part of the whole. The trouble with Amy is that sometimes, not often but sometimes, she can’t resist going for the punch line when she ought to be giving precedence to the overall good and wholeness of her story. As a writer I can learn much from Amy Hempel: Mainly how to do it right; but in a few cases, what not to do, too.
Hempel, Amy. The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. New York: Scribner, 2006.