The Best Bite: The Stories of Amy Hempel and Anne Beattie
An amuse-bouche is an hors d'oeuvre served to shock the taste buds. Chefs are meticulous in their choice of ingredients for an amuse-bouche, as this one bite proclaims who they are and what they create. The bite must be just right. The writing of Amy Hempel and Anne Beattie is a lot like an amuse-bouche. Their opening sentences are immediately engaging, a unique and deliberate diction allows for maximum intensity in a limited space, and their stories are about the moment, rather than a prolonged succession of cause and effect events. An examination of the following six stories, “In the Cemetery When Al Jolson is Buried,” “Nashville Gone to Ashes,” “Jesus is Waiting,” “A Platonic Relationship,” “Home to Marie,” and “Find and Replace,” prove Beattie and Hempel’s concentrated works are demonstrative in the art of restraint.
What takes an entire paragraph for some writers to covey is a clipped sentence for Hempel or Beattie. Each word is necessary and saturated with meaning, thus eliminating the need for excess. And no sentence is as important as the first. The initial sentence must incite intrigue and contain insight to the contents of the story. It is the foundation upon which the entire work is built.
In an interview with the Paris Review, Amy Hempel compares writing short fiction with journalism, stating that, “you have to grab readers instantly and keep them.” She refers to “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” remarking “The opener contains the whole story: ‘Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting’” (Hempel, 39).
The story centers on two women, one terminally ill, the other a visitor to her sick friend. In order to divert attention from the true reason for the visit, the sick friend demands trivial conversation in order to pass the time. This concept of forgetting is addressed in the inaugural sentence and is carried throughout to the end of the story where the visiting friend leaves the other to die alone in order to avoid witnessing death.
In¬¬ “Nashville Gone to Ashes,” the opening line is equally effective in hooking readers and presenting key elements. “After the dog’s cremation, I lie in my husband’s bed and watch the Academy Awards for animals” (Hempel, 30). This sentence raises many questions for the reader: how did the dog die? Why is it your husband’s bed? Do animals actually have award shows? The only way to find out is to read.
“Nashville” focuses on a widow whose days are spent caring for the animals her dead veterinarian husband left behind. Her routine life is animal-centric and ironically, a routine flower delivery breaks the monotony for an afternoon. The reprise in the first sentence of the ideas of both death and animals (“dog’s cremation,” “husband’s bed,” “Academy Awards for animals”) can be described by the oxymoron blatant subtly—the obvious repetition of ideas verses the inconspicuous diction demands attention and achieves a thought provoking...