Friday, April 16, 2010

Reasons to Live, by Amy Hempel

Accounting for the changes in one's taste over time is among the best methods for drawing distinctions in art. Certainly these will be subjective, but there are few subjects I am as expert on as myself—an achievement most people share—and it would seem a waste not to make something out of self-knowledge, imperfect as it may always be.

I read some thin filets out of Amy Hempel's Collected Stories after it came out in 2006. I liked what I read, but I had it out as a new book from the library and I had to return it before I wanted to. I'm not sure why I didn't check it out again or even buy it (I have run across it many times on Borders' 3-for-2—or is it 4-for-3?—table), but I have now returned to one of the four volumes it collects, Reasons to Live. I have not enjoyed it.

It is not terribly difficult for me to say why not: lives of clever desperation do not any longer have meaning for me because I cannot convince myself that the achievement of being clever about desperation is something to applaud, and certainly not worth emulating or holding as an inspiration or shield against days when I might struggle to feel clever in the midst of what passes for despair in an early- (and now mid-) twenties life. In short, Hempel, like many other writers who specialize in short stories or in novels that resemble short stories, is most intent not on conveying to the reader the content of a feeling, but rather its contours—the fineness and precision of its depiction and not the thing itself. It is rather the opposite of sentimental fiction—not because it eschews feeling, but because its approach to sentiment is one of appreciation rather than emotion. The point is not to recognize oneself in the feeling but to recognize oneself in the care that was taken to describe it, the self-reflexivity that allows it to be articulated. "I too can be so precise and eloquent about my feelings," it wants you to say, "I too can be so smart about my pathos." Or, if in fact you can't be so eloquent and smart, you can always aspire—aspire to be a writer, probably (that is, hopefully) of short stories of clever desperation.

I have what will probably be an unpopular conjecture about the origin of this need for fineness and precision and whom it principally appeals to—a conjecture that will be unpopular because it will probably sound scornful, although scorn is not my intention. I do not now find this aesthetic of clever desperation particularly compelling, but I have in the past found it so, and while it is common and even a little banal to repudiate one's previous selves, I also see that my attraction to it was fairly honest, and I imagine it is so in others who appreciate writers like Hempel.

My conjecture is simple: single people will find precision in fiction more attractive than those who are in (committed) relationships for the very simple reason that, in fiction, absences can be depicted precisely while presences cannot. The company of and intimacy with another person can only ever be rendered approximately in fiction, while the thought or feeling of an absence, because it is self-defined, can be specified with astounding minuteness. We make up what is absent in our lives, and we can afford to be precise because there is no one to contradict us. We cannot, on the other hand, make up what is present in our lives because the person who is present also has a say in how our reality (or our narrative) unfolds. And we cannot (and probably do not want to) achieve exactness in describing or defining that other person's presence because doing so would mean that we have stopped paying attention, have turned that presence into merely a filled absence, the solution to the problem of being single. Relationships should be so much more than that.

This type of literature—singles' literature—is necessarily always about discovery—finding the person or object who fills or seems to fill the self-defined absence in one's life. The importance of epiphany (the ultimate—albeit ephemeral—discovery) to the contemporary short story is well-known, but I think one can also include in this genre or metagenre most narratives about sad young literary men—Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision is vehemently single in orientation, even though it has a sort of love plot. And one can contrast this drama of discovery with the drama of adjustment most classically found in Austen, but now embodied in… well, actually, that's kind of tough. I just read The Ask, and I think the case can be made (counter-intuitive as it is) that Sam Lipsyte's books to some extent take up this role. They are dramas of adjustment where adjustment finally fails to happen, but at least he knows that the answers to his protagonists' problems aren't so simple as plugging a lack or absence that they themselves have defined—adjustment to the presence of others is what must be done.

My conjecture about the single-ness of this literature, I will readily admit, is strictly biographical: between my first reading of Hempel and this year's return to her, I have found someone who has made all the difference. I certainly don't want to be confessional here, but I do want to acknowledge that my conjecture about this type of literature and to whom it appeals is not the product of abstract, disinterested speculation—as if such a thing would be useful here.

Originally, I noticed this reorientation of my tastes in film, and I think my conjecture might have even greater purchase there: there is something like a genre or a meta-genre of films that single people see—something that spans from Michael Haneke to Wes Anderson. For in both, there is a tremendous emphasis on exactness, whether that is the austere formal rigor of the former or the highly-determined idiosyncrasy of the latter. There is always a song that is exactly right for the moment in a Wes Anderson movie, and there is always an exactly defined tremor or shudder that Haneke is trying to induce with his meticulous management of the camera and of time. In both, everything is calibrated to an intense, almost inhuman degree of precision. Compared with the outright messiness of a 30s screwball comedy, it is almost as if you're watching a different medium being used.

Of course, my conjecture is highly general and it is really more intended as a provocation than as a definition. But I think it is worth thinking about whether there is something like a genre which can be defined by this desire for precision, this passion for exactness. I began playing around with these terms when I was struggling to find a way to think the problem of how to account for what I saw as a "strongly unified sensibility" in The Millions "Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)" list. I called it a "ZOMG every word is perfect" aesthetic, which I guess is another (and pithier) way of saying what I've said here. I suppose one could also call it workshop fiction or MFA-lit, although I think it is slightly broader than MFA programs or creative writing classes (though any more, students, graduates, and teachers of such programs and classes seem to make up a large percentage of "serious" readers). And to return to my conjecture about the role of being single, I don't know whether MFA students are generally more frequently single than, say, PhD students (although I have been surprised at how many PhD students I know are in long-term, committed relationships), but I haven't read too many Iowa Writers' Workshop graduates who write about happy or successful relationships.


Richard said...

I think you're grasping here, Andrew. I don't know how else to put it, except to note that I observed no such change in my reading (or movie-viewing) upon entering into a relationship-then-marriage.

As far as Hempel goes, I liked this collection when I read it 5-6 years ago, but mostly I really liked a certain one-page story, the title of which escapes me, the one about the person talking to the person on the ledge? Yeah, that one. Good stuff. Is it clever desperation? I didn't think so. I thought it said something true in a very short space. Admittedly, the other stories have all disappeared from my memory....

Andrew Seal said...

"Grasping"? Perhaps, although I did state that this was intended as a provocation, which I think should grant me a bit of room to be more speculative. But thank you for, um, reining me in. Can't be too "grasping" on blogs, I suppose.

It's true--many people don't change their tastes when they enter a relationship, and I'm not trying to say that they necessarily should. But whether you did or not or whether you like Hempel or not, if there is anything in this post I do want to stand behind a bit more firmly as an attempt at real criticism and not just personal speculation, it's the difference between narratives of discovery and narratives of adjustment. And I do think that narratives of adjustment are a bit more difficult to appreciate when one is single and doesn't really have to do much adjustment. Whether the other side of the equation is true--that one is more likely to appreciate narratives of discovery when one is single—perhaps that is more variable.

Richard said...

I wasn't trying to rein you in, Andrew. I wasn't trying to be a smart-ass. I just don't see it. I have no trouble with the adjustment/discovery distinction, but I'm not buying the single/non-single angle (in particular as it related to the point about precision). What if you were once in a committed relationship and now are not? Which isn't to say that certain narratives don't become more understandable at different times of your life, as you gain wider experiences.

Andrew Seal said...

You may not have been trying to be a smart-ass, but I did find your tone to be patronizing. And I feel that I made it sufficiently clear that I intended the single-ness conjecture as just speculation, so I'm not sure why I needed to be told that I'm speculating. I appreciate the fact that you've had a different experience both of relationships and of Hempel, but I wasn't saying that was impossible--I was just making a conjecture about what might unify a bunch of different types of literature and film, what the origins of that unity might be.

Tom Elrod said...

I think there may be something to your idea of "precision," in that there is a certain youthful quality to works in which everything fits so well, where every detail has a clear and important reason for existing.

I do think good artists and writers tend to grow past this, however, which is why a lot of writers in their "late periods" tend to write books which people often have a hard time understanding or fully dealing with. Lazy readers will write it off to the eccentricities of age, but I think it has more to do with the realization, as you imply, that "real" life and relationships don't neatly correspond to any sort of ideal and believing in and striving for aesthetic precision is often analogous to believing in such ideals.

At least I think that's what you're getting at. I certainly see this trend in a whole bunch of writers. Shakespeare's tightly plotted early comedies giving way to the later romances. Wordsworth spending 50 years working on The Prelude. Joyce writing Finnegan's Wake. I'm trying to think of a filmmaker who fits this mold, too. Maybe Wes Anderson will eventually mature and his films will no longer be so technically "precise."

But probably not.

Andrew Seal said...

Tom, I like what you say about late style, and perhaps I should have framed my argument in those terms instead. I probably should have done more thinking, period, but this gives me an interesting new direction to go on.


Anonymous said...

i'm late to comment, but this feels like a tremendously "necessary" point to make. bravo. and i say this as a single person.

Adam Kelly said...

As a huge admirer of your blog, I've been going over old entries that I missed, and I came across this one.

Whether your insight applies across the board or not, I have to say I found it moving, both because it's such a sincere way for a book-lover to pay tribute to someone in their personal life, and because it grasps the pathos involved in being an individual.

This doubleness in our relation to others - who are both present and absent to us all the time, even if that insight strikes us only rarely - is something I think Derrida (who you say elsewhere that you like, but don't like citing - I know the feeling) captures beautifully, and his work moves me for the same reason.

Keep up the good work, and I hope you will remain happy with your present other.

Andrew Seal said...


Thank you--this is obviously a more personal post than most of what I write on here so it means a lot to know that others are finding it valuable.

And you're very write to point out the influence of Derrida here--although I wasn't thinking of him explicitly when I wrote it, the absence/presence relationship I was trying to describe owes everything to what I've read of him.