Minimalism Returns By Gloom of Night, Doomed To Walk a Certain Period On Earth

I haven’t thought about it in maybe 12 years. But it’s starting to come back to me.

One reason I wrote in the energetic style of Skull of the Robot was that I was, indeed, extremely energetic. Another reason is taste. One aspect of that taste grew larger because I didn’t like the hopeless, minimalist storytelling that was prominent and celebrated at the time….

Okay… This isn’t going to be a scholarly literary analysis of 1980s minimalism; this is from my older, still-cranky memory of my youthfully cranky feelings of the time.

I liked the works of Raymond Carver. He was quite popular among my peers as I graded from college in 1986. It was easy to put down your Hemingway and pick up your Carver, and I think Carver appealed more to my women peers then Hemingway did. As you know, Carver wrote a lot of good stories about alcoholics, failed marriages, failed dreams, and sometimes, common American darkness. Some of them were funny as well as despairing.

Over time, I became aware of other writers’ work that were somehow minimal, like his, but maybe more minimal. As a literary trend, minimalism seemed to go hand in hand with despair, smart despair, even smarty-pants precious despair, and, making minimal of humanity. I don’t know if this was a reaction to the stupid, fatuous Reagean Era (our current one is even more fatuous, by the way) and the years immediately following. The culmination of the “making the human minimal” literary enterprise, as I took it at the time, was a story called “Is It Dog, Or Is It Human” (I don’t know the name of the author), which seemed to reduce the human difference to the stain our species’ urine made (as contrasted to a dog). In other words, literary minimalism seemed to follow the equation, “less is less”.

It was very annoying to me. Iran-Contra scandal was going on at the time, pissing me off, briefly investigated, and gently swept away with generous pardons. And I was just starting my adult life. I had huge energy. I saw romantic lightning in the clouds. There was a wave of liberation going across Eastern Europe and even Russia. More importantly, I was young, I had health, I had a mind, and there were things I wanted to do that I thought I actually could do. And I had an interest in literature.

I wasn’t the only one. It bothered Raymond Carver. At least, to the extent, that he admitted he didn’t like being called a minimalist. It bothered him, not just because of it being a label. As a result, he changed his style in his later book “Cathedral”. It was more expansive in prose. And the title store shows the narrator in the end helping a blind man understand what a cathedral is by tracing his fingers on the picture of a cathedral in a book. It’s expansive.

In the January 11, 2007, “The New York Review of Books” (p. 34-35), Cathleen Schine reviews a new collection of Amy Hempel’s works. Amy Hempel falls under the minimal school of the sort that I don’t have a taste for. I don’t have a quarrel with her, nor would I likely win a quarrel with her; she should write however she wants to, of course, and she’s doing quite well without asking for my advice (including that she’s a Professor at Bennington College for Underprivileged American Youth). Likewise, Schine is another successful fiction writer.

I guess my problem is more with Schine’s review, and it’s unrestrained praise of things that bother me in Hempel’s work.

Here are some excerpts from Schine’s review…, “In the Space Between Words”…

“The humor, the lightness of the dialogue in this story–so beautifully balanced–together create Hempel’s easygoing mood of desperation, and that is one of her most endearing, magical sleights of hand. Doom may be everywhere, but it hovers as light as a cloud, as ephemeral as life.”

Aside from the gushy praise of this promotional piece that passes for review, Schline’s point is stray, in my opinion, and wrong in a kooky way that is annoying… Doom… “As ephemeral as life”… Come…on… That is so annoying, so pretentious! I can’t say it without mocking it.

As ephemeral as what? As… as…as life. As life. Yes, as I think about it, as ephermal… as life… Yes, as ephemeral as life. That’s how profound I am. You can hear it in my voice.

By the way, if we’re making grand statements about Life, allow me to observe, from the grandest point of view, that Life has been around no less than 3 billion years, so the depressing, defeatest, minimalist way of assessing Life is not the only way available.

What in the story makes the doom ephemeral? No, it’s the narrator’s spirit, shown by humor, in the face of background, oppressive doom that is the strong point in a style that I don’t care for. Is there really a message of ephemeral doom in there. Show us the manifest of that interesting idea of doom’s ephermality. No, we have to take her word for it. Schine’s last words in that paragraph are, “The story is the language of grief.”

By the way, I’m crying already–and that’s why I buy and read books, to cry and feel despair.

Schline: In ‘Housewife,’ a story that is only one sentence long, Hempel uses the punch line ending to evoke an entire cultural outlook as well as a wonderfully full and exact glimpse of one woman’s personal, moral, and cultural calculations…

Hempel’s story: “She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, “French film, French film.”

How can anyone describe that mildly funny sentence to be a “wonderfully full and exact glimpse”? What does “full” mean, let alone “wonderfully full” ? Fill-in some of that fullness for me. Count them down. Now. How many items does that make? Is that a fullness for the character? Forget it, let’s move on.

Please tell us what “entire” means in the claim that it can “evoke an entire cultural outlook”? Maybe “entire cultural outlook” means “a few limited aspects of cultural outlook”? Or maybe it’s human “culture” itself that is so minimalistically limited in scope?

More quotes:

Schline: “Here people drift, amiable and aimless, in an almost cocky despair…”

Doesn’t that sound super? Okay, it bugs me.

Now, listen to me–if the despair was cocky, that might be something I’d like. But note that it’s not. Cocky despair? No, that would not be minimalist. She said it’s ALMOST cocky, but not quite at that level of willful, energetic achievement. The arm lifts from the chair, and then falls, wearily.

Schline: “Hempel often likes to refine general ennui through the filter of more general ennui…”

Notice those are lopped-off quotes… Schine seems trying to do her duty as a reviewer and mention some things which some readers might see as limitations, but she won’t develop any of these observations in her rush to make a positive observation. For example, in the above quote, Schline goes on to talk about an exception. Why not talk about the generality? What is the experience for the reader to read about general ennui filtered through more general ennui?

Anyway, Schine seems to quietly indicate that Hempel is moving away from classic minimalism: “Timing, then, might also be considered the secret of tragedy [??sounds grand, but huh?? from what does that follow??], but for Hempel, tragedy is too big a word, too grand a concept, an ending, rather than a pause in the middle. Sadness on the other hand, and hope are what exist in the middle, and it is sadness and hope that show up in the later stories.”

And then she gives a quote from Hempel’s story which illustrates the defeat of hope.

“…This story is animated by a new vigor, absent from the occassionally effette early Hempel stories…. it has dogs. [The review then quotes Hempel.] In this story, it is only when the dogs come into the room that we glimpse, just for a moment, the terrible loss behind the clever wordplay, the intense hope behind the alienation…”

I haven’t read the story, so maybe this is new. Maybe this is something a little bit like Carver’s “Cathedral”. But–a guess–I don’t think it’s quite that. It’s a change, but maybe it’s the dogs that carry the hope, the humans in the story still in a state of ennui.

Schline: “…Her dogs… unlike almost any human character in the stories, feel real and solid… ”

Why didn’t you ever discuss about the unreal and unsolid characterization in her work? Given Hempel’s long-established literary success, why only the praise-angle? Why not some cons to go with all the pros?

Notice the weird, heightened role of dogs appearing again minimalist writing as a benchmark for humanity.

Schline: “This is the brilliance of Amy Hempel, to find and occupy the space between words, fraught with contradiction, even when the words mean the same thing, the space between optimistic and hopeful.”

That’s really pushing it, don’t you think? Come on, the schmaltz meter is hitting the red! All that gushy-wushy critical adulation for such despairing, shrinking work made with sensitive intelligence and some shards of humor.


I guess I don’t understand. But reading this review reminded me why I took an El Opposito, maximalist approach in Skull of the Robot. Even the title has some VIGOR OF LIFE in it. And later, I pursued satire and comic writing.

But, seriously, I don’t have the final say on this.


Schine and Hempel, and their publishers, own the rights to their words.

Published on February 14, 2007 at 10:20 am  Leave a Comment  

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