‘San Francisco’ by Amy Hempel

San Francisco by Amy Hempel, 1985

The magic trick:

Throwing the reader into the middle of the narrator’s troubled logic and letting us figure it out

Many times on this website, I have marveled at an author’s ability to say a lot in very few words. It’s very easy to take a two-page story and say something like, ‘Wow, there sure is a lot here for such a short story.’ And almost always the emphasis lives on the for such a short story part. It’s one of those complicated compliments.

Well, the compliments we can heap on this story come with no such qualifications. There sure is a lot here. Yes, the story is very, very short. Two pages. But there is more here than in most novels. We don’t need to tack on the for such a short story part.

The reader is playing catch-up the whole time, trying to piece together who is who, what is what. The most shocking realization would have to be when the reader discovers that the “you” in the second-person narration is dead. That certainly re-frames things a bit.

The family relationships are endlessly fascinating to consider. We get some intriguing clues but no real answers. We don’t even know if we can trust our narrator. Everything is up for grabs. No matter how many times you read the text – and it demands multiple and immediate rereads – you’re left supplying at least 80 percent of the story in yourself. And that’s quite a trick on Hempel’s part.

The selection:

Do you know what I think?

I think it was the tremors. That’s what must have done it. The way the floor rolled like bongo boards under our feet? Remember it was you and Daddy and me having lunch? “I guess that’s not an earthquake,” you said. “I guess you’re shaking the table?”

That’s when it must have happened. A watch on a dresser, a small thing like that – it must have been shaken right off, onto the floor.

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