Introduction to "The Most Girl Part of You"

Blake Butler


Sometimes it seems people forgot what a sentence really is. Everyone talks about sound now, saying what the center of talking is. It’s an easy hype to live for: there is a romance to the concept of a train of syllables so refined in their own session that they could be removed from all else around them and be their own corral. That’s a fine thing, sure. I like prisms. I like a book I can pull around me like a piece of sky hidden in a blanket.

Amy Hempel could be called someone of the sentence school. She’s one of the most revered acolytes of that Quarterly generation, which decades after the fact has again fit big into resurgence, for many of the right reasons.  And yet an Amy Hempel sentence is less a series of great tones and resonances. They are more, each, like a living machine, like a pig is. They sound like heat that’s come from eating more than just heat meant to warm whatever comes near. I’m going to turn to a random page now in “The Most Girl Part of You” and plunk my thumb down on a line: “The music comes in faintly; you would have to strain to hear the words if, unlike myself, you did not know the words already.”

I swear I just picked that at random out of this copy of her Collected Stories, which if I had to offer archives of the short form to pass to almost anybody in the street it would be it. This sentence protects an idea that is in the foundation of her jump: these are sentences that begin not out of nothing, a room or somewhere, some accidental or even designed collision, but of several hundred hours coming out. The music doesn’t feel like work because it is something you have heard, and are thereafter, as the lines go, building on your own head’s mirror, into a second map laid on the map. We’re not building from the ground up, is what I mean. Amy’s sentences do the work of paragraphs, because they don’t pretend to orchestrate, but snow.

The sex scene in this story goes like this: “And that is the end of the joking around; we get it out of our systems. We take the length of the couch, squirming like maggots in ashes.” I reread this last night in the bath. I put the book down after that one and went under. There’s never enough time.

In a workshop I had with Amy several years ago we were working on a person’s story about a couple having love trouble in a foreign city. A lot of the time in workshop Amy would be mostly quiet, and when she said something it was both not overcooked, and did the work of paragraphs in a few breaths. This story, which seemed to struggle to find the heart of its wanting a heart so bad, couldn’t seem to grab its ground, despite the ground being right beneath it, which seems so frequently the case with certain fictions: they don’t work because that music is straining for you to hear it as much as it is straining to hear itself. Amy’s comment on the story concerned a sentence that seemed to want to carry the heart of that heart, a compound sentence connected by a “but;” something like “Joey was difficult, but I loved him.” Amy suggested he change the “but” to “and.” So, “Joey was difficult, and I loved him.” Around this tiny shift, the story did a little click. It turned the logic of the text’s fighting with itself into fighting within itself. I swear it changed the whole thing: it was the essence, lit as simply as one would a candle by a bed.

I don’t know what the guy did with the story after that, but in my own writing, it made me understand something else about what sound, and the cogs that make sound do, like the kind of cracking that in this particular story Big Guy seems to want there in his teeth. Whether the cracking happens or not isn’t what’s important here: it’s the want. It’s less the sentences, or even the sound of them: it’s a bigger kind of trust.

Where other kinds of texts go like grease or TV, or like jewelry or a gown, Amy Hempel feels to me like milk. It is the kind of love one has not for the human of the person near them, but the love for the pet dog. She can say the biggest things like over breakfast cereal, but and with a gun under the table lip. The gun doesn’t have to go off. It’s always going off, and it’s a soft thing. You’re laughing. You’re already dead.