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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, August 29th, 2006
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The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel

by Amy Hempel

A Singular Voice

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

Few fiction writers are as intensely admired by their peers as is Hempel, though she's never published a novel. Her reputation rests solely on the four landmark collections of short fiction gathered here, including the long-out-of-print At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (used copies of which are both rare and expensive). She will forever be tagged a minimalist, which is accurate enough if largely unrevealing, since there's both great and execrable minimalist fiction. True, a ruthless economy characterizes her writing, but it's owing not to a studied lack of affect (an attribute that marks the most predictable and lazy minimalism) but rather to a lapidary precision and a severe, poetic aesthetic. Often she startlingly punctuates that aesthetic with a wit, reminiscent of Deborah Eisenberg's, that has evolved from the sly and often loopy to the dark and mordant (Hempel has a gift for the off-kilter one-liner; in a story in her most recent collection, the narrator deploys one on a man who's raping her). Dogs are Hempel's career-long obsession, and no one has written of them and their relationship to human beings with more exquisite sensitivity and clear-eyed affection. Another constant is loss: nearly all her stories, written in a perfectly modulated voice, circle around broken people and the dissolutions, disillusionments, and bereavements they endure. Although leavened by a wry rue, Hempel's is a hard-boiled sensibility, and each of her stories -- many only a few pages long, and one of which consists of a single sentence -- will leave the reader shaken, for they're all spot-on exemplars of V. S. Pritchett's 1982 description of the genre as "the glancing form of fiction that seems to be right for the nervousness and restlessness of modern life."

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