Book Review: Amy Hempel's "Reasons to Live"
by Rachel Donelson
In the previous newsletter, Dan suggested a few books to read while you’re self-isolating. I don’t know about you guys, but Man’s Search for Meaning isn’t going to be my go-to book right now. That’s the book I imagine you turn to afterward, when you’re ready to flail yourself for all of your little (or big) failings that contributed to the decline of human civilization. You have to have some mental and emotional capacity for that kind of book, and let’s face it, most of that capacity is used up not trying to harm ourselves or our small loved ones as they parade around the house with a portable speaker listening to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on full volume for the 6th straight time. So let me suggest a more modest, but highly enjoyable and very aptly titled alternative: Amy Hempel’s Reasons to Live. This is her first collection of short stories, published in the mid-80’s, in a contained, pre-Internet world. That containment resonates during our moment of self-isolation- as does her light sense of humor. Take the protagonist of “Tonight Is a Favor to Holly” who has just cut her own bangs too short, making her look like Mamie Eisenhower, and now she doesn’t want to follow through on a blind date her roommate set up for her. She works for a travel company whose motto is “We Never Knowingly Ruin Your Vacation.” She says she lives the beach life but it’s “not the one with sunscreen and resort wear...we just live at the beach….The beach is near the airport--so this town doesn’t even have the class that L.A. lacks.” She has the self-awareness to know that she should feel like she’s wasting her life there, but she enjoys the inertia of it enough that she avoids any potential change. Other stories have even tighter confines- both in setting and in word count. The collection opens with a woman lying in her tub, listening to her heartbeat. It’s barely two pages long. In “Going,” a young man is stuck in a hospital bed, recovering from injuries suffered in a car crash with an edgy bravado, though troubled by a two-day gap in his memory. And in another piece of microfiction, “San Francisco,” we shrink even further to fit inside a woman’s head, to hear the interior monologue she addresses to her dead mother.
Readers won’t stay down long, but when they bob back up to the surface, they’ll have little flashes of insight, a koan or two to ponder throughout the day.
Loss and grief are common themes, but they don’t weigh on the reader. The pacing of the very short stories permits only a brief immersion in those themes, and Hempel’s wry and occasionally absurd lines add buoyancy. Readers won’t stay down long, but when they bob back up to the surface, they’ll have little flashes of insight, a koan or two to ponder throughout the day. In “The Man in Bogotá,” a bystander watches a husband struggle to talk his wife down from a ledge. The bystander imagines telling the woman a story about a kidnapping victim in Colombia who came out of the ordeal healthier than when he went into it. “Maybe this is not a come-down-from-the-ledge story,” the bystander admits, but the question it provokes is “how [do] we know that what happens to us isn’t good”? I’m not going to claim that Reasons to Live is a come-down-from-the-ledge story collection, but it is certainly good.