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Falling

Even in the first few lines of Campbell’s “Falling,” I was already strikingly aware of how different this story was from anything else we have read. The story is written in first person, but the gender of the speaker wasn’t obvious until she says “a woman like me,” (pg. 108). In fact, I was under the impression that the speaker was a man, based on the somewhat vulgar language and sarcastic and cynical attitude. The speaker’s attitude or sense of humor, only gets darker as the story continues. She describes Jonas’s lack of friends in the psych ward sarcastically calling it a “new kind of failure,” along with his “failing to kill himself,” or “failing to want to live,” (pg. 108). The tone seems to change as she introduces Robert, mentioning that her knees went weak when she saw him. But that feeling is a thing of the past and she goes on to say that she doesn’t need anyone “freezing to death on the driveway,” (pg. 109). She goes on to mention her own thoughts to commit suicide, holding the gun to her head but never actually pulling the trigger. I was reminded of a passage from John Green’s “Fault in Our Stars,” in which the character Augustus Waters places a cigarette in his mouth. He never lights the cigarette but instead holds it in his mouth as only a symbol for what could kill him. Here, the speaker continues to live not for herself but for the wellbeing of Robert.  I’ll be honest, I had difficulty with the first few pages. They were painful to read, Jonas’s pathetic appearance, Robert’s deteriorating condition, and the speaker’s entirely hopeless outlook on life. But there is some sort of redemption toward the end, and I started to believe that these last few pages are what made this story bearable and one about love. I’m not under the impression that she asked Jonas to stay with her out of the kindness of her heart, but for the happiness of Robert. The writing only hints at her devotion, but it’s enough to allow the reader to realize that she has appealing qualities and she is not solely a miserable middle-aged woman. I felt certain of her love for Robert after she mentioned his smile when noticing Jonas for the first time. While difficult to read, this story may have drawn more raw emotion from me than anything we have read thus far.

In Tony Earley’s story, “Charlotte,” the description of the bar on page 37 is done in such a easily relatable way. The details are generic to a bar of it’s kind, but it works because most everyone knows and/or has been to a bar exactly like this – PJ’s is familiar to the reader. The waitresses are familiar as well, but Earley also uses them to effectively describe different surrounding areas and Charlotte universities. We better understand the bar and the city through these women, just as we better understand the bar and the city through wrestling: “…. everyone in Charlotte is from somewhere else. Everyone in Charlotte tries to be something they are not.”

It isn’t until page 42 that we get an idea of what time this takes place. Earley describes the women in the bar as follows: “The girls do aerobics like religion and have big, curly hair stiff with mousse.” It is such a quick moment, but the reader immediately recognizes that we are in the eighties.

I’m not sure if this is a love story about Charlotte, wrestling, Starla, or all three.

“Charlotte” by Tony Earley is a weirdly interesting story. There is a lot going on in the story but the author manages to keep it all straight and concise without losing the reader. There is the fact that all the wrestlers left Charlotte, the poetry, the narrator’s love for Starla, the wrestling match, the bar, the wrestling characters, and then all of those things are woven together to create a pretty complex story. But it is extremely well-done so it works.

The way the story is written contributes to the cleanness of it. The sentences are well-structured, well-thought out, clear and to the point. But there is also varied sentence length which keeps the story from being dry and reading like a “learn-to-read” book or an instruction manual. One paragraph is a single word, “gone,”(34) while other sentences are longer and more complex, “she will say that she loves me only at the end of a great struggle…”(36-37). All of the sentences are well-written and don’t bog the reader down with confusing, flowery language, but the varied sentence structure still makes it an enjoyable story to read.

The complexity of the story and the different aspects of the story build on one another so that works as well. One of the most insightful moments into Karla’s character is when she is watching the wrestling match and rooting for Bob Noxious while the narrator is almost enamored with Lord Poetry. When she shouts things like “Kill Lord Poetry” and encourages Bob Noxious to “go get” Darling Donnis because Lord Poetry is after her soul, the reader is given an extraordinary amount of insight into Karla’s character that the narrator probably couldn’t give because of his bias, and the reader is allowed to see the difference in character between the narrator and his girlfriend that, again, the narrator might be blind to. The difference between the two is especially evident in the wrestling scenes, as the narrator almost identifies with Lord Poetry, and this difference could not have been made clear without the complexity of the story that the wrestling story provides.

“Charlotte”

“Charlotte” is definitely not what I was expecting.  When I first started reading the story I was dreading it.  The moment I saw wrestlers I was put off but almost immediately I was drawn back in.  Earley’s style is very different from Hempel’s.  While I wouldn’t say that his writing is straightforward, it was easier to digest, but that does not take away from how powerful his words are.  Earley takes the wrestler and somehow turns him into not only a symbol for the city of Charlotte, but for love.  It is interesting how the narrator seems so done with life.  He’s constantly talking about how Charlotte is the place to go to be something then end up as nothing.  He often mentions how the wrestlers left Charlotte and things just aren’t the same as they used to be.  It’s really easy to feel his sadness and nostalgia. But despite his normally negativity, he’s also still very hopeful, like he still doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying.  You see this with his relationship with Starla.  He is always trying to get Starla to admit that she loves him, yet she never does.  He’s stuck in the past obviously.

The best part of this is the last bit with him recalling the last time the wrestlers fought.  This is a story in short person so you’re always in the head of the narrator, but at this point you almost step out of his head and just kinda watch this scene from above, like you too are in the stands.  His description of the match is beautiful and how he ties it up with Darling Donnis choosing a wrestler is interesting and definitely something that we should discuss in class.  I guess it can be paralleled to the narrator’s relationship with Starla, but I think there’s a lot there that I’m not catching.

Gone are the Thundercats, Bill and Steve, and the Hidden Pagans with their shiny red masks and secret signs; gone ais Paolo the Peruvian…” –Tony Earley, “Charlotte”

The wrestlers were, once upon a time, the trophies of Charlotte. You don’t know their real names, or you know part of their names, and that is how Earley wants you to know in terms of these muscled fighters. They are the shining beacons as one point, the one illustrious entertainment that Charlotte held onto until the tall, graceful basketball players substituted them. Now, the ones who are left, are nothing more but poetry readers and a glory robbed for all eternity. These names, these wrestler names in which the author lists off like trophies, are exactly trophies to Charlotte. Once these men are gone, Charlotte becomes nothing more but a hunk of dirt pile, as told on page 41. I think that Earley puts into these wrestlers more than just a history, but the image of something positive about a place that nobody should visit. The names, kind of like exotic creature names if you stripped them away from the human, are something like a tourist attraction in a way. When there are mentions of these names, there is a kind of dynamic energy that changes the prose of the story into something fast and quick. Meanwhile, the slow pace and almost static prose are left for the present, in which we see Lord Poetry recite his words and the narrator describing the current state of Charlotte. Earley set up the wrestlers’ names and their existences as not just a backstory of kinds, but also as a comparison between new and old Charlotte.

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I think one of the most impressive bits of this piece is the tone; as a reader, you understand that the “I” character feels hostile towards her deceased husband, but after rereading it, I noticed he never actually did anything mean to her. It sounds like he loved her unconditionally, which we don’t know for sure until the end, and yet there’s a bitterness to all of her words. I think the way this was conveyed was partially by the mechanical way she described how she cared for all these animals that didn’t sound like hers. They weren’t family to her, they were burdens left over from her husband. She as a character is very detached from the events that are happening and have happened. This sets a tone of emotional stagnancy, borderline apathy with a few shining moments of longing (like how she falls asleep in his bed).

I believe the point of view was used to give a sense that we as readers couldn’t trust the main character. Right off the bat, when she says “My love is so good, why isn’t it calling the same thing back?” we think that her husband doesn’t love her. As the story continues, however, we see his actions and real thoughts. I think this helps us as readers care about a character who isn’t perfect, who is deeply scarred with jealousy and greed, yet redeemable through her own misconceptions and her awareness of her flaws.

In both Amy Hempel’s “The Dog of the Marriage” and “Nashville Gone to Ashes” I think it is very clever that she chose dogs to interweave with her narrative about men, although I would argue to say that by mere page time men are the side characters in these stories. Similarly, she uses the chimp to talk about performance in the “In The Cemetery Where Al Johnson Is Buried.” In all three of these stories she never explicitly states she is using one to help talk about the other; she never creates a blatant simile.

The line, “An absence of convenient parking, inclement weather, a husband who finds that he loves someone else,” is also affective in making the marriage seem like a side story. She mentions her husband’s infidelity so casually, just as someone would mention the weather. The men in “The Dog of the Marriage” are never spoken about in as much detail as the guide dogs are. Jeanette is also mentioned with no introduction on page 350. The narrator doesn’t care about people in the way she cares about her dogs. I also think it is clever that the dog’s name in Goodman, because her husband seems to not be a good man.

Amy Hempel’s writing can be confusing at time and requires close reading. Through any possible confusion the aspect of the stories that stands out and guides the reader through the story is the narrator. This story is almost necessarily written in first person. The view of the narrator, the voice and the characteristics of the narrator are more easily seen in first person and are essential in this story for getting through it.

The character is laid out pretty early on for the reader. The first line of the story is “after the dog’s cremation I lay in my husband’s bed.” This is immediately telling for the reader. One, the character is focused on the cremation of an animal, and two, she’s lying in her “husband’s bed” instead of “their bed” or “her bed” which is odd because a lot of married couples share a bed. She is also watching the academy awards for dogs, not an average pastime either, so immediately thrown into this story, the reader has a vague idea about who this narrator is (or at least a few ways in which she differs from the average human being). We also learn valuable information about Flea, her husband, and that he is gone, but does not explain why it’s his bed instead of theirs or hers. It’s an intriguing first paragraph that sets up a lot for the story, including the strangeness of it all, some plot points, and the narrator as a person.

The way the story is written reflects thoughts and shows readers a deeper view into the narrator’s mind because we are basically reading what she is thinking. The way the story rambles and jumps, random sentences enter her mind, then it breaks and moves onto something else, is a fairly accurate representation of the mind at work. This is well-done throughout the story, and though it can make for a confusing read, the voice of the narrator is something the reader can cling to and remain grounded.

Random details throughout the story about the narrator are good at providing the reader with more of an idea on who she is. For example: “I thought a ham was an animal” and “he’s a real teenager of a dog… he’d have pimples” and “In the morning is when I pray” these little details about her that are dropped so casually into the story are very telling of her character, whether it be her sense of humor, her upbringing, her knowledge, her religious orientation, all of these things add together to make a realistic human being who is letting us into her thoughts, and they are necessary for us to care about her thoughts because she feels real to us.

Al Jolson

When reading this short story I was largely reminded of John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” a story in which boy meets girl but boy and girl are both terminally ill. But it seems in Hempel’s stories the reader is introduced to a new kind of love story. In her other stories, “Dog of the Marriage,” and “Nashville Gone to Ashes,” a greater love grows from the love that is given to the pets, a love that is lost. The tone of her story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” is one that is full of humor; even the ice cream they eat toward the end of the story is Good Humor. But it’s a kind of laughter that brought me closer to tears than happiness. Her sentence structure is so simple but so full of detail, so much so that it seems too easy to miss something crucial. I was particularly struck by the story about the man who was in a car wreck “on 101 going south,” (pg. 31). She mentions that the sight of his arm scared him to death, a sort of thought that made me pause. Dying of fear is such an incredibly horrible way to go. The way that Hempel goes about revealing, or hiding, the girl’s cancer is somewhat incredible in my mind. The reader is left to discover if she is actually plagued with cancer or some other terminal illness, but with the mentioning of her wig, she confirms a diagnosis. The secret of her illness seemed to add another dimension of sadness to the story — we’re not certain if she has cancer, but we’re also uncertain as to how old she is or how much longer she has to live. But the humor in the story continues with her burial next to famous entertainer Al Jolson. The endless distractions in the story, the random storytelling and the meaningless facts are essential to the meaning of the story. I would have shed tears if there hadn’t been an element to the story that helped me to forget the underlying sadness. In the final sentence she mentions the language of grief. I have learned that each individual processes and copes with grief differently, whether eat be through binge eating, exercising, or through humor.

Amy Hempel has a beautiful, yet sometimes confusing, style of writing.  Her story, “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” is heart wrenching.  From the beginning with the line, “Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” you instantly get this feeling of dread.  But, just like her other works like “Nashville Gone to Ashes” and “The Dog of the Marriage,” Hempel sort of veers the reader away into the head of the narrator.  The story goes from that gloomy first line, to listing off random facts that seem to have nothing to do with anything.  It really puts you in the head of the narrator and places you right in the center of the story.  What she feels, you feel.  This is also reinforced by writing the story in first person.  She clearly wants to get a certain tone across to the reader.

While this is a beautiful style of writing, like I mentioned before, it’s sometimes hella confusing.  One moment you are right with the narrator’s dying friend, and the next she’s talking about airplane flights and sitting on the beach.  This isn’t a criticism of her writing, in fact it’s beautiful.  The story is about the death of a friend and this erratic back and forth mirrors the emotions one feels in such a time.  Whether or not that is her intention, or she just writes like this all the time, I don’t know.  But it works and I love it.  I remember reading this story in intro to creative writing and I don’t think I really appreciated it until now.  How the story ends, with the story about the chimp, is incredible.  It is a beautiful way to describe the grief Hempel wants to get across without flat out saying, “I was sad.”  It’s a wonderful and depressing story.

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