Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” and Nathan Englander’s “In This Way We Are Wise”

Please address one or more of the following questions in your response.  Remember to keep these brief–about a paragraph or so in length.

1)  How do Hempel and Englander make their narrators’ anxiety apparent?  One way of answering this might be to look at the stories’ structural similarities — how the scenes are arranged, how transitions are handled, etc.

2)  Both of the writers are using elements from “real life.”  Englander is an American who lived for several years in Jerusalem in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and Hempel’s story is dedicated to the woman who provided the model for the sick friend.  With that in mind, are these honest stories?  Why or why not?

Extra bonus points if you can come up with a relationship between “honesty” and structure . . .

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24 responses to “Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” and Nathan Englander’s “In This Way We Are Wise”

  1. 1) In Hempel’s story it is apparent that the narrator is at a psychiatrist’s office. For instance: “Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting” and “That camera made me self-conscious and I stopped.” I have also noticed that the narrator’s mind tends to wander a lot, which is a common symptom of those who have anxiety issues. The narrator talked about everything between Eskimos, chimps, the Good Doctor, and many more. There is really no transition from one conversation topic to another.

    In the second story, the narrator loses his mind about issues such as death, pain, and Jerusalem. In the beginning, the waitress reminds Natan to calm down and relax. He is obviously been impacted by the events in Jerusalem. On page 204, for example: “The terrible shake trapped in my hands. Yesterday’s sounds caught up in my head. I tap an ear, like a swimmer. A minor frequency problem, I’m sure. I’ve picked up on the congenital ringing in Jerusalem’s ear.”

    2) Each reader has his or her opinion of what is and is not an honest story. I define an honest story as a story that will engage the reader and also engage the reader’s interest till the end. Is Hempel’s story honest? I would say no. It is obvious that the narrator has anxiety issues. I, as the reader, would like to know what is REALLY bothering him. Why does the narrator have anxiety issues? Is there an event that impacted his outlook on life? I tried to answer that question when I was reading the story. I had a difficult time trying to find a solution because he did talk about so many random things. The story would be more believeable and interesting if it incorporated some background information on the narrator and how he became who he is.
    Is, “In This Way We Are Wise” an honest story? Yes, I find this story to be more true and honest. The narrator is more developed in this story. We learn that he is in a restaurant reminiscing on the times spent at war in Jerusalem. His thoughts are more believeable, too. On page 199, Natan wonders how people can survive when they are in a exploding house. I, as the reader, can understand why Natan has anxiety issues versus Hempel’s story where I could not.

    • Thanks, Klaus. Very true that the narrator in Hempel’s story talks about many random things. I might argue that the randomness is intended to reflect her anxiety. Just so that everyone’s clear, the setting in Hempel’s story does jump around quite a bit, but the narrator is actually never in a psychiatrist’s office–during most of the action, she’s visiting a dying friend in a hospital.

  2. 1.) Hempel makes her main character’s anxiety clear with the line (as Klaus pointed out) “The camera made me self-conscious and I stopped…the kind of camera banks use to photograph robbers. It played us to the nurses down the hall in Intensive Care.” In a few lines she let’s us know that she is under pressure to perform (it’s implied that she feels like a criminal) for the woman she is addressing and that she is trying to entertain someone in the hospital with a camera aimed on her from Intensive Care to watch her case (more evidence that the narrator is blaming herself for her friends predicament).

    In Englander’s “In This Way We are Wise”, Natan’s character is not only dazed and needs to be calmed down in the first paragraphs but says, on page 197, that “On the street I am all animal. I am all sense and taste and touch. I can read every stranger’s intentions from scent, from the flex of a muscle, the length of the passing of our eyes.” That is more like paranoia caused by a bad experience. It’s anxiety, pure and simply.

    There is not much difference between the way that Hempel Englander chose to use a first person narrator that is reflecting on the past; it gets hard (in both cases) to determine if the narrator is reflecting or experiencing it in real time. That is hard to do but I can understand it. Memories can replay themselves ad nauseum. It can be difficult to stop referring to those who have “passed” in the present tense.

    And that’s where I think I see the honesty in both of these pieces. When reflecting, you are reliving the event. You are putting yourself exactly where you were at that time. The first person narrator is not easy to do but, where Englander depended on present tense and Hempel depended, largely, on past, the outcome is the same (in my opinion). I feel as though I’ve lived through something with them -one close to my experience and one not – and it doesn’t matter since I’ve been given a snapshot of each narrator’s experience without it feeling contrived.

    • Kris, I think that’s a great point–that it’s difficult to figure out when the narrators are reflecting in these stories, and when they’re experiencing things in real time, and that even though that may make it difficult to follow the “story,” it’s true to the experience of having gone through a traumatic event.

  3. Why is there no editing? I did not mean to say that “it doesn’t matter.” I meant to say that it doesn’t matter that one story is one that I can relate to and one is not – I still understand the emotions invoked by both narrators.

    I have a trigger (read as send) happy finger.
    : )

  4. 1) Hempel: I feel that there is no structure and there are no transitions in the story which show the narrators anxiety. And the narrator wonders off and gets side tracked a lot. There are also two tones set for the story, one is the “trying to cheer up my dying friend (past tense)” and the other is the “sadness about my friend dying (present tense)” tone. This to me also reveals the narrators anxiety.

    Englander: the narrator is really affected by the events surrounding him and he notes that others around him aren’t so shocked by the bombing (which take an emotional toll on him). For me, this builds anxiety for the narrator. He says things like “I want to smile back at her, in fact I want to be her” and “round foods are good, they symbolize eternity and the unbreakable cycles of life” and “I’m not made for this”. He, to me, sounds displaced and confused.

    2) Hempel: I think that the story definitely was honest. The author catches my attention from the very start and I feel involved in the story, its really heart touching and is honest to the ways of the heart. I feel for the narrator who is afraid of her friend dying and of death itself, which I think is the cause of the narrators’ anxiety.

    Englander: I thought this story was honest; this story, just like the previous one, was also true to the ways of the heart. I could relate to the narrator easily because the narrator was confused by a lot of things that I feel I am also confused about. I could see the narrators pain and shock of learning that Israel isn’t what he always thought it was, and the narrator is just really real to me, so I find the story that the narrator tells real.

  5. Great–thanks, Amina! I like your point about the two tones in Hempel’s story. I think you’re on to something, but I also think that there’s a specific emotion unifying both. Others, it might be interesting to hear your thoughts on what that emotion might be.

  6. Amy Hemples- “In the Cemetery”. I could sense a lot of anxiety right from the stories first line. “Make it useful stuff or skip it.” The opening line helps to set a tone of immediacy and anxiety. I had the feel of death and limited time throughout the story. I agree with Kris that the cameras in the halls added to the anxious feeling that the friend was be watched and had to perform with the passage “The camera made me self-conscious and I stopped…the kind of camera banks use to photograph robbers. It played us to the nurses down the hall in Intensive Care.” Also I agree with Klaus that the narrator jumoing from secen to scene indicates a kind of escaping feeling from the dire situation on hand, playing into the anxiety. I agree with Amina about the lack of transitions this story was definetly scattered in its structure. But the anxious feeling of death were clearly present throughout the story.

    Englander- There is a sense of anxiety and terror right from the beginning paragraph when Nathan describes a terror attack. “I am watching the people pour around the corner watching them run toward us mouths unhinged pulling at their hair scratching at their faces, they collapse and puff up hop about undirected.” This passage helps to set the tone of horror and anxiety that are present throughout the story. I agree with Kris that the narrator own sense of awarness and anxiety are presented by the “Animal on the street” paragraph in which Nathan is describing a war torn Jerusalem. The author has terrific knowledge of the situation in Jerusalem that is very evident, his descriptions are terrific and well researched. I think the paragraph where Lynn describes a horrific scene where “arab kids tossing rocks, molotav cocktails… Israleis fring back tear gas and rubber bullets. A boy in the air his body arched his face to the sky,” helps to give some justice to and helps to capture thehorrors that the people of the Middle East expirence.

  7. 1. In Hempel’s story, I think that the anxiety was apparent through the choppiness of the writing. The sentences were short and the ideas were random. It jumped from one subject to another. there was not a smooth rhythm and represented thoughts of someone with anxiety. Also, the use of the words “she” and “they” so much causes a sense of anxiety.

    In Englander’s story, I feel the same sense of anxiety. the structure of the story is similar, with choppy, short sentences, and not much description. The transitions are also not related or smooth. When Englander does use words to describe what is going on, (for example the top of page 196), she uses: suddenly, urgency, already, etc. Also, there are some parts where in the middle of the short, choppy sentences, Englander puts long, run-on sentences in the story. This shows disruption and chaos.

    I think that these are both really honest stories. The emotion, anxiety, and anxiousness portrayed in them made them very real. There was very real emotions of pain and sadness and confusion in the writing. I think that this relates to the structure because in both stories, it was as if the narrator was writing down his or her thoughts as they were coming into his or her mind. It felt like the words were coming directly from the author’s mind, thinking about the real life experience rather than thoughts coming from the imagination that have been edited for a story.

  8. 1) Hempel – I agree with Amina about the two tones of past and present emphasizing the anxiety of the piece. I also felt the narrator’s anxiety in her questioning of her role with her friend, in that uncertainty about being between (as Amina pointed out) wanting to cheer her friend up and feeling sadness for the impending loss. She questions which stories to tell, she “keeps (her) guesses to (herself)”, she tries to be brave and comforting and distracting, but mostly what the reader feels is her anxiety in being unable to true to her own present tense tone – the scared, unconfident one. “I twisted my hands in the time-honored fashion of people in pain. I was supposed to offer something. The Best Friend. I could not even offer to come back.” I agree with Elyse as well, that the randomness and “choppiness” of the narration added to the anxiousness of the piece as a whole, which I think helped reflect the experience of loss as well.

    Englander – I think even the opening paragraph of this story portrays anxiety. Again, I agree with Elyse about the choppy sentences, and also about the content of them – that they are so heavy with adjectives (darting, knocking, swooping, banging, striking), one cannot help but feel a sense of anxiousness. I think too, the last sentence of the first paragraph “there is nothing at all to do” and that feeling of helplessness throughout – “it’s already too late to put yourself in”, and “the bystander’s disease” adds to the anxiety of the narrator as well as the reader. I think, like the Hempel story, so much of the anxiety stems for this inability to act in a way that will be useful, in a way that could save.

    2) I agree with Kris that the structure of both of these pieces makes them feel honest, not only as stories, but also through the narrators who tell them. Throughout both stories I found myself understanding that this is the way people think, this seemingly illogical train of thought that may only make sense to them, these choppy and random pieces of information that surprise us as they re-enter our minds unexpectedly. The immediacy of the structure of these stories (both in present and past tense) made me feel as though I was reading the thoughts of these narrators exactly after these things has happened, as though it’s choppy because there is so much to be said and remembered and felt that they need to get it out quickly before it is lost and gone forever. It feels honest because it feels as if there was no time to waste being dishonest, no time to waste considering what that honesty might look like and deciding against it. There is pain and sadness and confusion and uncertain and self-doubt and all of those things people tend to deem “ugly” and therefore unworthy of sharing. But here, in these stories, there is all of it, laid bare before us, heartfelt and honest.

  9. 1) In Hempel’s story the narrators anxiety is evident from the structure of the flashbacks. Many of the flashbacks have to do with either the sick friend’s lack of fear, especially her lack of fear of things the narrator herself is afraid of, or belief making things true (I remember, but can’t seem to find, a part where she talked about prayer holding up a falling roof). The flashbacks are frequent as well, as if the narrator is trying to escape the present situation of watching her dying friend. She even tries to look forward to leaving the hospital and having a good time, as well as being afraid that the sick friend “wants her life” when she has a second bed moved into the room for her. The fact that, in the end, she only remembers useless things also seems like she is trying to forget the hardships of her past, as well as preventing herself from gaining any new hardships through memory by only thinking of inconsequential things.

    In England’s story the fear and anxiety are slightly more expressed. The narrator almost immediately presents himself with an extremely detailed scenario about his girlfriend being injured and trying to comfort her. His despair is immediate but unfounded, as it turns out his girlfriend is alright. This doesn’t stop him from thinking about the chances that he could, or might still in some future time, be a victim of a bombing. Even when his girlfriend sites statistics of being more likely to be hit by a car crossing the street, he jokingly, but with an obvious hint of truth and fear, suggests that maybe he should no longer cross the street. He also remembers how he thought he knew all there was to know about the city, but then he realizes all he knows are ancient biblical stories and historical information, and that he doesn’t really know anything at all.

    2) England’s story could very well be true. I don’t pretend to know a lot about what a person feels after such an event, but the emotions and thoughts of the characters all seem very real. The immediate anxiety of a loved one being hurt, especially when they were supposed to be on the bus that exploded, feels very real in this story, and the constant worry of returning to your normal routine feels genuine.

    I switched Hempel’s story to the second talked about for answer number two because I felt this one was the most real out of the two stories. The narrator is constantly trying to distract herself from the thoughts of the present condition of her friend by trying to cling to memories of how brave she was, or by thinking about hope and belief as a way to make things better. She even tells short, unimportant stories or facts to her friend because they do not wish to talk about anything that matters for fear of grief rising between them. The part of the story that struck me as the most truthful was her implicit admittance that she did not want to spend a lot of time with her friend. She was afraid of being obliged to stay when she saw the second bed, she thought about all the fun she could be having if she left, and then she finally told her friend that she was going to go back to her own house. The friend was obviously distraught at this and fled the room in anger, but as is implied at the end of the story the friend still chose to go home that night even though her friend obviously needed her. If the story is the “retelling” the narrator is contemplating at the end, then the fact that she admitted that she thought about saying she did spend that night with her friend when she needed her most, but instead did not, shows a tremendous amount of truth that might reflect back on the author of the story.

    • Also, something Kris pointed out that I forgot to mention was the narrator in Hempel’s story feeling like a criminal on the camera. This might also be something she was thinking about when she was deciding whether or not to lie and say she did spend the night with her friend.

      • Andrew, great comments. The narrator’s “implicit admittance that she did not want to spend a lot of time with her friend” and her “feeling like a criminal on the camera” are very good observations. Others, what does this suggest about the narrator’s state of mind?

  10. 1. In both stories I feel the narrators’ anxiety is transmitted through their structure and format. We receive information in short bursts (quick, truncated sentences); often vague and indirect. We are not fully aware of what is happening and it is this confusion that contributes to the overall tone of anxiety and helplessness in both stories. In Hempel’s story she provides us with a play-by-play of what’s happening in the present without really explaining what is going on. The narrator jumps between interactions with her friend in the hospital and her own personal, internal interactions. In the interactions with her friend, the narrator seems calm but reveals her anxiety when she talks about things she has no control over (like earthquakes and flying). In Englander’s story we experience the narrator’s anxiety very clearly in how he contrasts his reaction to the bombing with the other characters’ reactions; highlighting his inability to cope or accept what has happened.

    2. Englander’s story was easier for me to accept as real; the inclusion of his name creates “validity.” Hempel never tells us the narrator’s name, and we cannot automatically assume it is the author herself. The information presented in Englander’s story is better explained than what Hempel offers us. Englander’s story revolves around a suicide bomber in Israel–an event most people have heard about and wouldn’t have any trouble understanding. Hempel’s story revolves around a sickness that is never explained. This vagueness may lead the reader to feel somewhat disconnected and to question the truthful nature of the story. In terms of structure and honesty, I would say that the clearer and more structured a story is, the more apt I am to trust it.

  11. Through the characters emotions we get a sense of honesty. They are experiencing very traumatic events. There’s fear, sadness, grief and confusion. The author displays anxiety through the characters and writing style. In Hempel’s story her thoughts are everywhere. She bites her tongue a lot because she doesn’t really know what to say. The sentences are short when she’s speaking with her friend. Yet when she is “rambling” the sentences are long. Englander displays anxiety by transitioning between past and present. When tragedy occurs we often are stuck wondering if we are dreaming. Unable to decipher if this is reality or a dream. In this story what gave me a sense of honesty, is when the character starts to talk about religion. “Today is a day to find religion, to decide that one god is more right than another, to uncover in this sad reality a covenant -some promise of coming God.” In time of tragedy its normal for people to turn to religion for a sense of understanding and comfort.

  12. 1. I think Kris and Amina pointed out that the way both stories were structured contributed to the feeling of anxiety. Both stories seemed to be one conscious thought and we read whatever the narrator was thinking at that time. The first indication of anxiety in Hempel’s story was the first line, “tell me things I won’t mind forgetting.” I think this tells us that the character speaking has something else on her mind. Although this was the first indication of anxiety, the feeling continued with the jumpy dialogue and the vague descriptions. There were also very few transitions.

    Englander’s story also felt anxious, but it did contain transitions and allowed the reader to be taken from one scene to the next by the narrator’s descriptions. The story felt anxious for different reasons including the setting and the repetitiveness of each detail. The narrator was always conscious of his surroundings and noticed what was the same and what changed in each scene. For example the narrator said, “There is the corner. There is a man reporting in front of my cafe. And then the long shot of stretch I avoided. The street I walk on a dozen times a day. There is my cash machine, its awning shattered, its front streaked with blood.”

    2. As for honesty in Hempel’s story, I don’t think it was honest. It was difficult to tell what was the narrator’s memory and what events or dialogue actually happened. People’s perception of events often changes as you reflect back on it. I find it hard to believe that this narrator was clear-headed enough to tell an honest story of what happened. I think Klaus also brought up a very good point about the narrator in the story. It was difficult to trust the narrator because we didn’t know much about her.

    On the other hand, I do think Englander’s story was honest. We learned a lot about the narrator’s life and the area in which he was living. He seemed like a careful observer and not biased. That’s why I trusted him and think his story was honest.

  13. Hempel makes the narrator’s anxiety appear apparent by allowing the narrator to jump around in various thoughts. There is no consistent train of thought and the story lacks smooth transitions, which emphasize the anxiety of the narrator. I would have to agree with Kris in Englander’s story, that the narrator shows his pure anxiety when he claims that he is like an animal on the street.

    The two narrators in Hempel’s and Englander’s story have gone through traumatic events, and I feel that the structure of the story plays a key role in describing this. The fact that the story is difficult to understand, going from the past to present, presents a sense of confusion and apprehension.

    In both of these stories I would have to agree with the majority of the class that they are in fact honest. These characters come across as real life people, especially through their random thought processes. I can empathize with the characters, especially in the first story with losing a loved one and trying to return to their daily life.

    The anxiety that is presented makes me feel that I have been with the characters from the start. Also, the random thoughts and transitions made the story more believable because I can relate to that feeling when I am in a state of anxiety.

    • “The fact that the story is difficult to understand, going from the past to present, presents a sense of confusion and apprehension.”–I like this observation very much, and I think you’re right.

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