Unlike Lydia Davis, her great contemporary in the short-short form, Amy Hempel’s work is closer to the quotidian than the truly absurd, and in her new story collection, Sing to It, she continues to create stories that explore the strangeness of contemporary life: the one about the bomb threat at the movie theater that turns out to be nothing; the one about the day-after phone call from the wife of a home intruder; the one about the woman with a refrigerator “that freezes food as quickly as the freezer compartment.” Perhaps the most ambitious of the stories in the first half of Sing to It is “A Full-Service Shelter,” narrated by a big-hearted speaker who works in a facility for abandoned dogs where “the ‘full service’ offered is death.”
Hempel is renowned for fiction that is often just a page or two in length, but it turns out she is equally adept in a much longer form such as the novella that takes up the second half of the book. After using cocaine with her students, the unnamed narrator of “Cloudland” has left her job teaching at a private girls’ school in Manhattan and moved to Central Florida to work as a home health aide to seniors. Gradually, she acclimates to the world of snakes and alligators and punishing rain, and bit by bit she divulges the story that has been haunting her most of her life. “Cloudland” is one of those pieces of writing that is so gripping when you are in the midst of it that you don’t realize until you’re finished that you’ve actually been reading a work of literature, something that will be around for a very long time.