Wednesday, November 23, 2016

At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom: StoriesAt the Gates of the Animal Kingdom: Stories by Amy Hempel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"On the nicer side of not a nice street, between God Bless the Cheerful Giver and his dog, and There But for the Grace of God Go I and his dog [...]"

A few years ago in an anthology of short stories I read a piece - the title I have since forgotten - by Amy Hempel and I liked it a lot: the writing was concise, not a word wasted, yet it strangely produced a poetic and sort of dreamlike effect. So I very much looked forward to reading more short stories by Ms. Hempel. At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990) is a set of 16 pieces ranging from short and very short to extremely short. While brevity is a quality that I value highly in literature my reaction to Gates is somewhat mixed: the collection has a few gems, but also several unremarkable, pedestrian pieces.

My favorite is the shortest piece in the set, In the Animal Shelter. In these four short paragraphs, just one half of a printed page, Ms. Hempel tells us a lot about people, dogs, and their not always easy relationship. The desperately sad sentence that constitutes the fourth and last paragraph is deep, subtle, and amazingly sharply observed. What a contrast with the next piece in the set, the ten-page title story, dwelling on the same topics yet marred by an atrociously cheap dramatic effect at the end!

I quite like The Harvest with its slight meta-fictional bent: it almost seems as if the author is telling various variants of the story and trying them for size. In The Most Girl Part of You the reader can detect Ms. Hempel's fascination with the language, and her attempts to show how words affect the reality of the story. The Rest of God is an enchanting account - full of sharply observed situational clich├ęs - of a barbecue party. I also like To Those of You Who Missed Your Connecting Flights out of O'Hare, a charming little trifle of a story. Maybe I like it because of the viciously sharp yet funny sentence:
Because if you are like me, you know that some of us are not the world, some of us are not the children, some of us will not help make a brighter day.
But maybe I like it just because of my terrible fear of flying.

Anyway, the exquisite sentence ending the shortest story is not one to forget but unfortunately I will also remember the cheap effect that spoils the title story. Certainly a worthwhile read but a little disappointment considering the high expectations.

Three stars.

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