One thing I wrote a few days ago needed a fact check, I thought. I mean a reread. Since I wanted to say that Flaubert was granddaddy of the minimalists, I thought I should remind myself of what a minimalist was like. That word should be in quotations marks: “minimalist.” These labels quickly become useless.
I picked a book I hadn’t read for twenty-five years, Amy Hempel’s Reasons to Live (1985), an aesthetically coherent book of short stories that is probably less than a hundred pages all told. There are many steps between Hempel and Flaubert, but she writes as if she had read Sentimental Education and thought “Yes, like this, but just leave out the boring parts.” And she has very strong opinions about which parts those are. Most of ‘em, is her answer. Not necessarily the parts most other people find boring.
“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” Hempel’s most famous story, dives right in:
“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said. “Make it useless stuff or skip it.”
I began. I told her insects fly through rain, missing every drop, never getting wet. I told her no one in America owned a tape recorder before Bing Crosby did. I told her the shape of the moon is like a banana – you see it looking full, you’re seeing it end on.
The narrator is visiting her friend in the hospital, distracting her from her imminent death with trivia, jokes, nothing with too much meaning. Hempel never specifies the friend’s illness. The important thing is that she, they, are young.
The story of the hospital visit is almost the frame for the deeper story of the narrator’s boundless fear of her own death.
What seems dangerous often is not – black snakes, for example, or clear-air turbulence. While things that just lie there, like this beach, are loaded with jeopardy. A yellow dust rising from the ground, the heat that ripens melons overnight – this is earthquake weather.
The story, like most in the collection is full of stuff, the trivia, details about the hospital, the patient’s routine, the activity on the beach (the stories are all in southern California, where some hospitals have beaches), not just seemingly disconnected as in Flaubert’s fiction but deliberately disconnected. Hempel has to simulate randomness. The punchline, or perhaps hinge of the story:
On the morning she was moved to the cemetery, the one where Al Jolson is buried, I enrolled in a “Fear of Flying” class. “What is your worst fear?” the instructor asked, and I answered, “That I will finish this course and still be afraid.”
The trivia was not just a little gift to a dying friend, but part of the way the narrator orders – disorders –the world. The miscellaneousness of the world is life. The narrator – and the writer – somehow pulls this material into some sort of meaningful shape.
The next story makes the idea even more explicit. “Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep,” seeming gibberish that comes from non-metaphorical patterns for knitting (“Begin, slip together, increase, continue, repeat”), although the metaphor for Hempel’s art is if anything too blunt.
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 together remaining stitches.
Cast off loosely.
Now that last line, that is a long ways from Flaubert.