Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Today Will Be A Quiet Day

Once upon a time I didn’t enjoy short stories. It was laziness and something else: despite an extensive literary education (English literature degree, creative writing MFA, library job, books for breakfast) I had never learned how to read a short story for anything other than plot. Reading Amy Hempel’s short stories has changed that.

They are short, sometimes very short, and at the end of each I have to pause to take in what I’ve read, and usually read them again. The meaning isn’t always apparent, so I read slowly, absorbing every sentence, every word, to pick up the nuances. I'm a beginner again, feeling my way. I’m not page turning to find out ‘what next?’ Reading these short stories is more like contemplating a poem.

This sounds dull. But Hempel’s writing isn’t at all. Her voice has “something to do with stand-up comedy, contemporary poetry, celebrity magazines, visual arts, the West, and the popular song” according to Rick Moody in his essay 'On Amy Hempel'. One-liners, references to pop and celebrity culture, the shallow side of California: all those things I love. But it is necessary to pay attention, particularly at the beginning of Hempel’s stories: there’s no traditional set up, no gentle easing into a scene. Today Will Be A Quiet Day’,  from her first collection Reasons To Live  propels the reader straight in with a disagreement:
“I think it’s the other way round,” the boy said.
How’s that for a first line? We’re given information that is partial at best. No name, no indication of what the boy is talking about, no setting. What this does is force us to read the next line to orient ourselves as readers. What is the other way round?

“I think it’s the other way round,” the boy said. “I think if the quake hit now the bridge would collapse and the ramps would be left.”
Ah. So we’ve entered this story half way through an argument about the effect of an earthquake on a bridge. But it would be tedious to read a repeated line, so Hempel omits it. Hempel’s stories seem as pared down as possible – like poetry -  giving the reader only what is absolutely essential for the story. She’s a slow writer (four short story collections in twenty years) – but I like to think she’s spending her time cutting, honing and polishing her sentences until they are as minimal as they can possibly be. Hempel just drip feeds the reader what they need to keep reading, to build up a picture of what’s going on. The next sentence tells us who the boy is arguing with:

He looked at his sister with satisfaction.

OK, so this is a brother and sister arguing. What’s more the boy is enjoying the argument – we can tell by the word “satisfaction”. Now a third character jumps in:

“You are just trying to scare your sister,” the father said. “You know that is not true.”
“No, really,” the boy insisted, “and I heard birds in the middle of the night. Isn’t that a warning?”

We’re eight lines in, and though we have no names, no time of day, no descriptions of what the characters look like, we do know there are three people in the scene: a father and two kids, and we can tell quite a bit about this family’s dynamics, which is what the story is about, plus we have a tone of voice: annoying younger brother, a father who is trying to be authoritative. The boy is needling his sister – and the father knows he’s doing this on purpose: we suspect in fact that he’s quite enjoying it. We don’t know where they are yet: they could be together watching something about earthquakes on TV (though why would that scare the sister?) or perhaps they are on the bridge itself. The next two lines give us the information we need:

The girl gave her brother a toxic look and ate a handful of Raisinets. The three of them were stalled in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Finally the setting is revealed: they’re in a car on the bridge. We can go back and read the opening again, with more understanding, and this time round, can hear the needling tone of the younger brother, sense the girl’s mood.

Tempting as it is to do line-by-line analysis of the whole story, I’d rather you read the story for yourself. The other thing I particularly noticed in this story is Hempel’s wonderful ear for banter between children: this story teems with the sort of talk that parents/adults tune out. But it’s not saccharine or cute in any way – it’s well observed, well listened to, which saves it from being sappy:

“Can I have one?” the boy asked, meaning the Raisinets.

“No,” his sister said.

“Can I have two?”

“Neither of you should be eating candy before lunch,” the father said. He said it with the good sport of a father who enjoys his kids and gets a kick out of saying Dad things.
The dialogue is very much on the surface: it crackles with corny jokes, family sayings and wisecracks – which a) is fun to read and b) tells us so much about these three characters and the levels of comfort and discomfort they have with each other.
The reason the three of them are on a daytrip in the car together is that the father wants to check that they are OK after one of the son’s friends committed suicide. It would be so tempting as a writer to slip in some heavy conversation, a leaden “on the nose”  question: “How are you feeling son?” “I hurt so much dad.” But people rarely speak like that: how much more often do we sidle up to the real subject by talking about something else? Or argue passionately about things that don’t matter at all, while leaving important things unsaid? So why shouldn’t characters in fiction do that too? The clever thing about this story is that the superficial dialogue – the squabbling and joke telling - is all the father needs to understand exactly how his children are doing.

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