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Amy Hempel’s Reasons To Live

Reviewed by Gail Vida Hamburg
Author of The Edge of the World (Mirare Press)

To draw parallels between Amy Hempel’s Reasons To Live , a cycle of “cut to the bone” stories set in contemporary Los Angeles, and India’s opulent Mughal miniature paintings, is not as crazy a notion as one might think. Mughal miniature art bloomed and flourished under the reign of Emperor Akbar [1556-1605], and are awesome images of artistic structure and excellence. Often smaller than the palm of one’s hand, the pictures are filled with many figures and stories, all of them happening simultaneously and bound only by shape and color.

According to Bharati Mukerjee [Jasmine, Holder of the World ] who is an avid collector of the art form, Mughal miniatures are crowded with “narrative, sub-narratives, sometimes meta-narratives, so taut with passion and at the same time so crisp with irony.” In an essay on Mughal Art’s narrative esthetics, she writes: “Every separate story in the miniature matters, every minor character has a dramatic function. But all the strands and details manage to cohere, and each is framed by an elaborately painted border. The border shouldn't be dismissed as the artists' excessive love of adumbration. The border forces you to view the work not primarily as a source of "raw" sociological data, but as sociology metaphorized; that is, as a master-artist's observation on life/history/national psyche cast in the aesthetic traditions of the community and transmuted into art.”

Hempel opens “Reasons To Live,” this way: “My heart—I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and I headed for God.” A lazy reader’s understanding of it would have been complete after the first go round, if only she’d written in preferred conventional fashion like so: “After Dr. Smith told me about my aneurysm—four months tops, he’d said with HMO limited coverage compassion—I walked aimlessly down the hospital corridor painted in builder’s white and primed with death, pulled out of the parking lot, and tried to find a church. Presbyterian, Catholic, Anglican, it didn’t matter. I needed to hear God. Why is it that when you talk to God, it’s called praying; and when God talks to you, it’s called schizophrenia?”

Folk singer, Susan Vega who’s often called a Minimalist composer, aims for subtraction in her lyrics. “These days I'm trying to use the language as though it were a piece of wood, and I craft it, I hone it down. I sand it, I polish it, and I make sure there are no cracks, no extra pieces or frills that might fall off. I try to keep it as compact as possible,” Vega writes in The Passionate Eye, her memoir. Reasons To Live was difficult going because of this very compression. One may grow agitated because Ms. Hempel’s narrators insist on readers doing half the work. Her sentences are so brief; there’s no room for the reader to pause in the middle of a line, to gather her thoughts and forces before tramping on. So brief, one is in danger of forgetting them, as one would a vivid dream upon waking up. You may need to re-start the book several times for the sake of understanding; but the road is made by the walking. As I read, I learned something about withholding, about writing only the top of the iceberg. “ My heart—I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and I headed for God.” One person’s anguish in seventeen words, hardly the mathematics of subtraction or Minimalism. Minimalism sounds small, stingy. I prefer to think of Amy Hempel as a miniaturist painter.

   

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