11/05 Lydia Davis & Amy Hempel
"Story": I was immediately drawn into this piece and the uneasiness of it. It was clear from the outset that this character was on the verge of coming unhinged. However, the ending results in this anti-climatic self-reflection that doesn't live up to the promise of the first few pages.
"The Mother": For me, "Mother" felt like the quintessential Lydia Davis story. It's more of a vignette than a traditional narrative, but it's remarkably self-contained (and includes Davis' usual disdain for her mother).
"The Silence of Mrs. Iln": This piece surprised me in a way that the other Davis stories didn't—as a character, Mrs. Iln is completely likable and
relatable, even if she can't communicate. And that reversal at the end, where the narrator remarks that Mrs. Iln is the "most alive person among the nearly dead," was just spot on.
"In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Bured': I've only read a handful of Amy Hempel stories and this one is my favorite. (Apparently, this is the first story she ever wrote—it came about while she was working with Gordon Lish. He'd given the class a prompt to write about the worst thing they'd ever done). The ending totally blew me away.
"Therapy": This story treaded dangerously close to the woe-is-life pitfalls of "Five Signs," but, in the end, it redeemed itself, dur largely to the fact that I loved this idea of someone coming to a halt in their life—both literally and metaphorically. That's the one detail I remember about this story.
"Five Signs of Disturbance": This story was easily my least favorite. The narrative drags on, and we're forced to contemplate the dull and tedious life of the narrator, who's suffering through a period of stasis. While reading this piece, I was continually reminded of every negative critique of Kmart Realism and realized they'd been talking about this story.
The story I enjoyed the most was Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”. I really like her writing style and how poetic she is. I fell in love with the passage where the narrator envisions her escape from the horrible reality her friend is trapped inside:
I had a convertible in the parking lot. Once out of the room, I would drive it too fast down the Coast highway through the crab-smelling air. A stop in Malibu for sangria. The music would be sexy and loud. They’d serve papaya and shrimp and watermelon ice. After dinner I would shimmer with lust, buzz with heat, vibrate with life, and stay up all night (38).
I like how this bright daydream contrasts with the Best Friend’s dismal situation. The story was very moving and left me feeling very inspired.
The story I dislike the most was “Five Signs of Disturbance”. I didn’t like the story because it was slow moving and repetitive. I wouldn’t want to be this woman. I wouldn’t want to know this woman. This story was frustrating and exhausting to read.
The story I liked most was Amy Hempel's "In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried." I liked all of the stories this week but I liked Hempel's ones better, and "Al Jolson" made me feel stronger emotions than any of the other stories did. Hempel's writing feels to me like it has more personality. By "personality" I mean something like less "universal" or "generic." I feel like in Lydia Davis' stories for the most part you can very easily put yourself in the narrator's position (especially when the narrator doesn't have a name, I think that's is why Davis doesn't give her narrators names sometimes, so you can easily slip yourself into the role). A lot of people like when authors do that and it's a strength in a lot of ways, but my personal taste is to read about people who are not like me, or who I wouldn't immediately guess were like me, but through the course of the story I come to identify with them and feel something for them. In general I thought Hempel did this better than Davis did. And by that rationale "Therapy" was my least favorite of all the stories we read. Though, as I said, I liked them all.
My favorite of the stories, although even this one I found confusing, is "In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried" because I like the way it deals with a very difficult and intense subject in a cleverly understated way. The trivial details that the two friends share with each other are amusing but also show how important it is to them to avoid looking directly at the pain of the friend's illness. The fact that the friend specifically tells the narrator to avoid heavy subjects shows how well the two know each other and the conclusion brings it full circle nicely by ending with another bit of trivia, this one emotionally powerful.
My least favorite of the stories is "Therapy." Interestingly, it has one thing in common with the Hemple story I just praised, they both show characters remaining nonchalant in the face of great strife. But Hemple's story does two things that "Therapy" does not: it incorporates humor, which allows me to empathize with the characters, and it shows the pain of the situation gradually creeping in and getting less and less avoidable. In the Davis story, the character seems to stay in the same emotional state for the duration, to the point that it strains credulity. While we are told that her emotional state changes, we are not shown it as the whole thing is narrated in the same emotionless tone and none of the characters are written with enough texture to make them believable.
Broad brush, since you asked about what we liked, the Amy Hempel stories appealed to me especially. I find the Lydia Davis stories amore difficult, since obsession, mental illness, and narcissism tend not to be favorite themes, however brilliantly drawn. Well -- I should perhaps amend that. Obsession CAN be something to which I am drawn in literature and often is. But I want more from a work than I found in these well-crafted tales -- they were wonderfully competent, but I like yin and yang both in a work and these felt lopsided to me. (Story is admirable in its deftness and plausibility, despite these words.) Tao, some of the Kmart Realism pieces that we have read seem to go against my DNA. I have been imbued with the ethos that you play the hand you're dealt with courage and grace, watching out for others as you do. It still leaves room for much that isn't just tonic, because I also believe that we must love people warts and all, rather than building friendships and respect only for people who think and behave according to our own patterns. This is why I can love Flaubert and Wharton and Wolff and also like ZZ Packer or Neil Gaimon (I never heard of him until a couple of weeks ago, and was blown away by his Snow, Glass, Apples short story.)
My favorite Amy Hempel story you supplied is In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.
I was amused at the way Hempel bookended her story with factoid lists, such as the Bing Crosby thing at the beginning, which sounded dimly plausible. Crosby had had a renowned collection of recordings I’d heard about and like most readers, I get a kick out of the shock of something recognizable in what I’m reading: it can draw me in, as it did here. Similarly, I liked the ”What do I remember,” at the end, although I think its content was a tad less adroitly selected that that at the start.
This story resonated with me. Love is complicated. Our feelings arely are as pure as we want them to be. I watched a friend die take six years to die and learned how hard it can be to be a good friend in the face of imminent death, but with sufficient time to experience vicariously all or most of the stages of emotions referred to. Like the patient in this story, my friend also played the game of segregating doctors into good doctors and bad doctors, even -- it was so long -- of hospitals into good hospitals and bad hospitals. Hempel’s sentence, “I cling to the sound (of friend’s laughter) the way someone dangling above a ravine holds fast to a rope” may to some sound a bit fraught, but, again, is recognizable to many who await the end with someone dear.
I loved the natural dialogue like “what does Kübler-Ross say comes after Denial” and the related comments about the Resurrection. I also liked that her capitalization (the stages, the resurrection) which to me mimicked the dying friend’s frame of reference.