In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried Style and Technique

Amy Hempel

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Hempel’s story is a textbook example of a central technique of the short story prominent among writers, from Chekhov to Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver. It expresses a complex inner state by presenting selected concrete details, rather than by creating a parable, or by the supplying of direct statements. Significant reality for Chekhov and those short-story writers who have followed him is inner rather than outer reality, but the problem that Chekhov solved is how to create an illusion of inner reality by focusing on external details only. The answer for Chekhov, and thus for modern short-story writers within his tradition of lyric realism, is to find an event that, if expressed “properly,” that is, by the judicious choice of relevant details, will embody the complexity of the inner state.

The relevant details in Hempel’s story are precisely those that seem irrelevant, even as their very triviality suggests the pain that they attempt to cover. It is this inability or unwillingness of modern short-story characters to confront pain directly that has made many readers mistakenly believe that such so-called “minimalist” writers as Chekhov, Hemingway, Carver, and Hempel are hard-boiled and unfeeling, failing to create caring characters about whom the reader can in turn care. The heart of Hempel’s story focuses on just this impossibility to speak directly the language of grief. At its beginning, when she tells her friend that she could tell her more about the talking chimp but it would “break your heart,” the friend says “no thanks.” However, by “looking back,” the narrator has, at the end of the story, come to terms with her guilt and has learned how to express the language of grief.