Saturday, April 18, 2009

Amy Hempel and Alistair MacLeod win the Penn Malamud Award for their Short Fiction

Alistair MacLeod and Amy Hempel have been selected to receive the twenty-second annual PEN/Malamud Award. Given annually since 1988 in honor of the late Bernard Malamud, the award recognizes a body of work that demonstrates excellence in the art of short fiction.

MacLeod is the author of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, which were later published together under the title Island: The Complete Stories. He is also the author of the novel No Great Mischief. He was raised in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and was educated at St. Francis Xavier University, the University of New Brunswick, and University of Notre Dame. He has also received the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Amy Hempel is the author of Reasons to Live, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Tumble Home, and The Dog of the Marriage, which have been published under the title, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. She also won the 2008 Rea Award. She teaches in the MFA program at Bennington College.

The PEN/Malamud Award includes a reading in the 2009/10 PEN/Faulkner reading series at the Folger Shakespeare Library and a prize of $5,000, which will be shared by MacLeod and Hempel.

Single past winners include John Updike, Saul Bellow, George Garrett, Frederick Busch and Andre Dubus, Eudora Welty, Peter Taylor, Grace Paley, Stuart Dybek and William Maxwell, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, John Barth, T. Coraghessan Boyle. Since they started giving the prize to two winners—one “master writer” and one “younger writer.”—the winners have been: Ann Beattie and Nathan Englander, Sherman Alexie and Richard Ford, Junot Diaz and Ursula K. Le Guin, Barry Hannah and Maile Meloy, Richard Bausch and Nell Freudenberger, Lorrie Moore, Tobias Wolff and Adam Haslett, and Elizabeth Spencer, Cynthia Ozick and Peter Ho Davies.

MacLeod’s first collection came out in 1976, so I guess he is the “master,” but Hempel’s first came out in 1985, so she is hardly a “younger” writer.

I have been reading Amy Hempel since her first collection and have taught her best-known story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” many times. (The cemetery, by the way, is not far from where I live, just off the San Diego Freeway between the Los Angeles Airport and the city.)

Perhaps you already know the story; it’s one of those stories that epitomizes some of the characteristics of so-called “minimalism” of the 1980s and thus will probably be a long-time anthologist’s favorite for university texts. What makes it memorable is not its central focus—a woman visiting her friend in a hospital where she is dying of cancer—but rather the witty, brittle black comic remarks that the two women make—a kind of modern gallows humor. For example, when the narrator leaves after a visit, the dying woman says, “Bring me something back. anything but a magazine subscription.”

Hempel was a student in one of Gordon Lish’s writing classes in New York (Lish is perhaps best known for being Raymond Carver’s early editor, who has been given credit for Carver’s minimalist style in his first two collections.) She has said that the “Jolson” story and several others in her first collection were assignments in Lish’s class.

Hempel’s four collections of short stories, at my count, is a career total of less than 600 pages. In her fourth collection, The Dog of the Marriage, she is as tight-lipped as ever. She once told an interviewer that the trick of the short story is to find a “tiny way into a huge subject.” The question is not whether Hempel has little to say, but whether the few words she chooses to explore the huge subjects in this book—love, loss, divorce, death, grief, betrayal, rape, heartbreak—are the right words to express their inexplicable essence. What the stories are about is finding a way to live when life is unlivable and language seems inadequate.

One very brief piece, which seems emblematic of the entire collection, juxtaposes white objects in a gallery of paintings with white spots on an x-ray. The artist of the exhibit, which is significantly entitled “Finding the Mystery in Clarity,” says the mind wants to make sense of a thing. However, when a doctor tries to tell the central female character the meaning of the spots on her x-ray, she can only helplessly repeat, “What are the white things?”

A casual first reading of these stories may make one feel short-changed and cheated, but short stories are seldom meant to be read rapidly and once only. The challenge is to try to become the attentive, sympathetic reader they demand.

The twentieth century’s first and most influential minimalist, Anton Chekhov, described the writer’s challenge this way: "In short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because--because--I don't know why."

I am not sure that I know either. But I suspect that the short-story writer’s compulsion is similar to that of the poet—to struggle with human complexities that psychologists, sociologists, historians, novelists and other dispensers of explanatory discourse never quite account for. I would appreciate hearing from my readers about this “minimalist” approach. Is Chekhov right that it is better to say not enough than too much? Do you know the reason for this minimalism that Chekhov says he did not?

Alistair MacLeod’s stories are quite different than Amy Hempel’s. They have the echo of orality, whereas her stories are definitely written. They are certainly tightly written, many of them sounding as though the language were engraved on stone—perfectly wrought, almost ritualistic and legendary in their rhythm. He is one of my favorite writers. I recommend him to you highly. I wonder if any of the writers reading my blog have tried to write an "oral" story, a legend, and might comment on the difficulty of making this kind of story work in such a "written" age as our own.

I met him briefly two years ago at the Dublin Writer’s Festival. He was giving a reading at the Peacock Theater, which is a small venue adjacent to the famous Abbey Theatre, established by Yeats and others. He read “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun,” a wonderful choice, a tour-de-force of the ancient storyteller’s art that transformed everyone in that theater into rapt listeners, hunched close to catch every nuance, like peasants around an Irish fireplace. The story begins, “Once there was a family with a Highland name who lived beside the sea. And the man had a dog of which he was very fond. She was large and gray, a sort of stag hound from another time.”

It is a harrowing story that you will never forget. Almost as harrowing is “The Boat,” told by a man whose father is a fisherman, as many of MacLeod’s characters are. It ends with the discovery of his father’s body washed up on the rocks: “And the fish had eaten his testicles and the gulls had pecked out his eyes and the white-green stubble of his whiskers had continued to grow in death, like the grass on graves, upon the purple bloated mass that was his face. There was not much left of my father, physically, as he lay there with the brass chains on his wrists and the seaweed in his hair.”

If the men do not make their living from the sea, they make it in the mines. In “The Closing Down of Summer,” a miner named MacKinnon, leader of what he calls “the best crew of shaft and development miners in the world,” prepares to leave mining in the North as summer ends to take on another job in the southern hemisphere. It is a typical MacLeod elegiac paean to the challenge and danger of a rugged life, of facing the inevitability of death.

Those of my generation may recall a song by Peter, Paul, and Mary, entitled “The Ballad of Spring Hill,” about a mining disaster in Nova Scotia, a disaster that MacLeod refers to in another story in Island. The first stanza is:

“In the town of Spring Hill, Nova Scotia

Down in the heart of the Cumberland Mine,

There’s blood on the coal and the miners lie

In the roads that never saw sun or sky

Roads that never saw sun or sky.”

MacLeod taught the fiction workshop at University of Windsor before his retirement. One of his students recalls a constant refrain from his class: “And if you don’t get it right, the reader will put down your book, go into the kitchen and make a cheese sandwich, and never come back.”

MacLeod once told an interviewer that he tries to make stories that endure and that “will stand the rain, so to say, and I try to do the best that I can. I write slowly and carefully and I hope that the end result is worthy of this so called dedication.”

MacLeod’s scrupulous prose has earned him the dubious title of “a writer’s writer,” which usually means a very fine writer that not many people read.

I have seen no bad reviews of MacLeod’s work. Jane Brox, in a 2001 review of Island in The Boston Globe captures his effect just right: “Macleod’s cadenced, mesmerizing stories are so finely rendered, their verity so transfixing, that rarely have I been pulled into short works the way I have been pulled into these, pulled so far in that while I’m reading there is no other world.”

I have read the stories before, but now I am listening to them on an audio book recording that I synched to my Ipod. In the early morning, I take my old dog, Shannon (She is a 14-year-old flat-coated retriever, whose black hair is now white around her muzzle) for a long walk and listen to the wonderfully mesmerizing stories of Alistair MacLeod. It’s a miracle that the two of us don’t get run over.


A. J. Ashworth said...

I'm very much enjoying looking back through your blog and just came across this post (I love Amy Hempel's 'In the cemetery...' story). With regard to Chekhov's quote on not saying too much, I just wondered whether he meant that if you say too much in a story, you can never un-say it - it will always be there, like an eyesore on an otherwise attractive landscape. Whereas if you don't say enough, then at least your readers can use their imaginations to add in what's missing. (Not exactly an earth shattering observation, but just what occurred to me as I read.)

Charles E. May said...

I betcha many writers looking over their work in the past have more regrets for things they did say than for things they left out. Thanks for taking the time to comment, A. J.