One night I convinced myself that I had once attempted to crack my teeth by drinking coffee immediately after ice water. Later I realized that Jack "Big Guy" Fitch from Amy Hempel's "The Most Girl Part of You," had been the tooth-cracker, not me. When first reading At The Gates of the Animal Kingdom the stories swam swiftly by like the fish in the Roundabout at the Aquarium in the story of the same name; they were a quick read. Immediately afterward I thought little about them. After distancing myself
from them with hours and days they eerily began to creep back into my life--sentence by
sentence, one by one. I started to read them again.
What makes Hempel's stories so unearthing is their lack of gravity. I don't mean
this in a flippant sense. Some of the stories are quite unsettling, but they float into your
consciousness rather than tearing into it with a hoe and shovel. Initially I attributed their
affect to the events and subjects of the stories; almost all of them deal with subjects
common to contemporary young women; however, Hempel's prose seduced me for a
These stories lack perfection, but not in a derogatory sense. Hempel's stories do
not take on the air of being this brick wall of material. The stories wander and spin; they
were personal. For example in "The Center" Hempel spends the first page and a half
writing about "my friend Deborah" who "for the price of a cup of coffee a day" had
"adopted a child." Then unexpectedly she begins to talk about a dog named Pal: "I was
thinking about Pal." The fact that there is no mentioning of Pal, dogs, or pets in this first
half of the story breaks the writing convention that says key elements of the story should
be introduced early on, preferably in the first paragraph. Clearly Pal has something to do
with the story. Whether or not the story of how Pal has been reincarnated into Original Pal
and Pal Junior similarly to how Deborah's adopted child changed or whether the section
on Pal supposedly shows the narrators lack of interest in Deborah's ranting, I'm not sure.
And Hempel made me not care. I took her words as a nice vacation package, where someone else did all the worrying.
Another positive element of Hempel's work is her sense of freedom. There are quirky details that seemingly have no purpose but to colour the story
with authenticity and make the story a genuine experience. In "Rapture of the Deep" a
trick-or-treater "dressed up in pyjamas and carried a bottle of Diet Pepsi," and " was
supposed to be Brian Wilson, but everybody guessed Hugh Hefner." By Halloween I believe I shall be convinced that this trick-or-treater came to my house. I didn't read this book; I felt like I lived it.
Hempel's lack of didactics and gentle way of eliciting emotion worked well. Unlike
some contemporary writers, who sets up definitive events that typically produced emotional reactions,the death of a dog, a relationship break-up, etc.Hempel does not bait her reader. Her stories remain ambiguous and do not rely solely on serious elements to evoke an emotional reaction. In fact, it seemed to me that she left her stories for the reader to pick up what they wanted, but the stories still retained the ability to delve into my consciousness, but it was an ethereal,
dream-like process. Perhaps it is in my dreams where I have cracked my teeth with ice
water and coffee? Maybe even with Jack "Big Guy" Fitch? Or on Halloween at the Aquarium? Who can tell what happens in that imaginative space, but it is where the story and the reader unite and where I received Hempel's stories uninterrupted.