Murder by Amy Hempel, 1990
The magic trick:
Writing a self-absorbed protagonist to make a point about self-absorption
One of the risks Amy Hempel consistently runs, at least early in her career, is a pattern of extraordinary self-involvement. The stories are such micro looks at life, and the protagonists and narrators at the center of almost all of these stories are deeply inward-focused. It is rare that the great revelation or lesson learn is for or about one of the other characters. It is almost always the female protagonist – who would seem to be a stand-in for Hempel herself.
Is that a problem? Eh, not really. First of all, you can take these stories as individual items and not read them consecutively in a collection. That certainly mitigates the self-absorption. Taken alone, each protagonist is not that much more selfish than most heroes of late 20th century short fiction. Secondly, the self-involvement can be the theme itself. Think of Hempel’s classic, “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” where the narrator can’t shake her own fears and grief enough to comfort her dying friend. Her selfishness is the story.
But… and you know this was coming… take a story like “Murder,” one that is of far lesser quality than “Al Jolson,” and you may find like I did that the inward gaze is annoying. The narrator here is attending a friend’s wedding, but the story is nothing about that friend; it’s about the narrator’s angry assessment of marriage. It’s an assessment borne of fear. So, yeah, you know what? Never mind. It works. It works the same way “Al Jolson” works.
The emotional power might not be the same. The cleverness might not be the same. But the writing a self-absorbed protagonist to make a point about self-absorption works just the same. And that’s quite a trick on Hempel’s part.
“Something something something never / Love for an hour is love forever.”
If that’s true, I thought, then we’re in business.
I showed the inscription to Jean, there in the used books store, and she said, “Maybe we should have married Jim.”
Jean had five boyfriends, all named Jim. Aren’t two of the Jims best friends? I asked. No, she said, this is a whole new crop of Jims. Isn’t one of the Jims a scientist? I asked. She said I must be thinking of the Jim who had a Ph.D.
The Jim she thought we should have married was the Jim that got away.
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