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On Amy Hempel’s “Greed”

I sat in the library today writing and reading. A rank odor would intermittently hit me, and I didn’t know the source until I had observed a man raise and lower one and the other and then both of his armpits. This was certainly not conducive to uninterrupted work. In spite of this, I did have a chance to read a new story by Amy Hempel, in Ploughshares (Spring, 2010), of all places (give me swords instead of Ploughshares, I’m inclined to say)—goes to show you that you still can’t write off the less adventurous journals out there, well, at least not completely.

A Hempel story is an event, not because she seems to eke them out (unlike Joyce Carol Oates, her journal-mate here, who cranks them out like a butter churn), but because they’re dependably filled with great sentences. “Greed,” a story narrated by a cucquean about her husband’s lover, a woman who had been “running on the fumes of her beauty,” who “had the means to indulge impetuous behavior and sleep through the mornings after nights she kept secret from her friends. She traveled the world, and turned into the person she could be in other places with people she would never see again.” The woman calls her nemesis “Mrs. Greed,” an appellation that reminds me of William Gass’s  story “Mrs. Mean,” where the narrator, too, is a voyeur making all kinds of uncorroborated assumptions about those he observes, and who also christens the observed with a new name. But that’s where the similarities end. What follows in Hempel’s story is the narrator’s wrenchingly honest assessment of her betrayed feelings and her own imagined complicity. But this is not the story of a victim. A video camera hidden in a book is used. A plan is concocted:

I know I was supposed to be angry with him, not with her. She was not the first. She was the first he would not give up. But I could not summon the feelings pointed in the right direction. I even thought that killing her might be the form my self-destruction took. Had to take that chance. I tried to go cold for a time—when I thought of him, when I thought of her. But there was a heat and richness to what I conceived that made me think of times I was late to visit a place that my friends had already seen. When you discover something long after others have known it, there is a heady contentment that comes.

These seething lines, devoid of any fanfare, are the kind we expect from Hempel. That last one, in particular, is perfectly phrased and timed, perfectly capturing this character’s quietly crazed resignation, and her comfort with her own violent temperament.

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