reasons to live

15 stories in this slim volume from Amy Hempel published in 1985. Only 3 of the 15 written in third; the rest, in first.

My clear favorite is the first-person story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” It’s nicely developed and goes deeper than a lot of the others in this collection. [spoiler alert]

One of the interesting things about this story, which is divided into 20 short sections, is the way Hempel uses white space–as in, not the same way throughout the story.

The first 16 sections of “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” are basically one visit of the Narrator to her friend in the hospital. As the story progresses, the visit progresses as well. It all moves forward except section 2, when time seems to stand still as the Narrator steps back from the scene to describe it, and sections 8-10, when the Narrator reminisces at the beach. In sections 1-16, Hempel uses white space stylistically–to highlight moments.

Between sections 16 and 17, the white space denotes a space and time jump. Section 17 begins:

“On the morning she was moved to the cemetery, the one where Al Jolson is buried…”

Then in sections 17-20, Hempel is again using white space stylistically but this time to highlight thoughts. These sections exist in the place and time after the friend dies.

Using white space inconsistently adds to the random, floaty feel of this story that is actually organized in a linear sequence (granted sections 17-20 could be in random order rather than moving forward chronologically, but that seems unlikely given the rest of the story).

Another interesting thing–in the first scene, the Narrator has 2 lines; in the second scene (section 3) the Narrator has 1 line; in the third, 0 lines. The fact that the Narrator does not say much, despite the abundance of scenes, contributes to a feeling that the Narrator is not fully present in the hospital room.

Finally, Hempel uses 4 tenses in this 12-page story. Perhaps to show our split consciousness, where we are when we’re not fully present–thinking about the past, imagining the future, the conditional what-ifs.

All this, and we haven’t even begun to talk about what the story is about…

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