-The development of an image so your ending packs a powerful punch (i.e., theme development)
-Random details accruing meaning (i.e., theme development)
Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” is one of the most anthologized stories possibly ever. In it, the first-person narrator visits her best friend in the Hollywood hospital where she’s dying of an unspecified illness. It has apparently taken our narrator a long time to show up:
So how come, I’ll bet they are wondering, it took me so long to get to such a glamorous place? But do they ask?
They do not ask.
Two months, and how long is the drive?
The best I can explain it is this—I have a friend who worked one summer in a mortuary. He used to tell me stories. The one that really got to me was not the grisliest, but it’s the one that did. A man wrecked his car on 101 going south. He did not lose consciousness. But his arm was taken down to the wet bone—and when he looked at it—it scared him to death.
I mean, he died.
So I hadn’t dared to look any closer. But now I’m doing it—and hoping that I will live through it.
The story’s acute tension is the narrator’s visiting (and ultimately abandoning) her best friend in the hospital; its chronic tension is that she’s been terrified of doing so because she doesn’t want her friend’s death to emotionally devour her. In the above passage we also see how Hempel uses the description of another experience (a man dying from the sight of his own broken bone) to try to capture the feeling of this experience (seeing your beloved best friend on her deathbed).
Hempel uses this experience stand-in tactic again with the story of a chimpanzee. On the first page, amid the random details her dying friend asks to be regaled with, the narrator tells her about a chimp:
“Did you know that when they taught the first chimp to talk, it lied? That when they asked her who did it on the desk, she signed back the name of the janitor. And that when they pressed her, she said she was sorry, that it was really the project director. But she was a mother, so I guess she had her reasons.”
“Oh, that’s good,” she said. “A parable.”
“There’s more about the chimp,” I said. “But it will break your heart.”
“No, thanks,” she says, and scratches at her mask.
The friend tries to bring up the chimp again a couple of pages later, but the narrator apparently doesn’t want to talk about it:
“Tell me,” she says, “about that chimp with the talking hands. What do they do when the thing ends and the chimp says, ‘I don’t want to go back to the zoo’?”
When I don’t say anything, she says, “Okay—then tell me another animal story. I like animal stories. But not a sick one—I don’t want to know about all the seeing- eye dogs going blind.”
No, I would not tell her a sick one.
The chimp acquires the most meaning out of the random details that appear throughout the story because it’s the only one that recurs. These random details are mentioned initially because the dying friend asks to hear “things I won’t mind forgetting,” which by the end turn out to be the only thing the narrator can remember: “I remember only the useless things.” The random details turn out to be more than just useless, though, as relayed by the story’s concluding image:
I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands. In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.
Baby, drink milk.
Baby, play ball.
And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.
The random details are themselves “the language of grief”—the meaningless things you cling to when the meaningful thing you have to confront is so heavy it’s impossible to look directly at without some part of yourself dying. The narrator’s grief, the meaningful thing she’s unable to confront, is twofold: being unable to face her friend’s death, and her own “aggressive health” in the face of it–to borrow another description from the story, one of many that juxtaposes such health with illness, manifesting the narrator’s guilt. Even the title of the story manifests the narrator’s avoidance of the real issue.
Chuck Palahniuk assigned this story as supplemental reading for his essay “Developing a Theme,” instructing us to look for a common factor–or theme–in the details the story presents us with. The narrator’s inability to face her friend’s death, translating to a larger inability to cope with death or the meaningful, can be seen as a theme driving the story forward (aka Tom Spanbauer’s horse that pulls the story from the east coast to west, from beginning to end), dictating the selection and meaning of images, from those of health next to illness to the descriptions of her fears of flying and earthquakes–in the former her friend’s ironic lack of fear is juxtaposed with the narrator’s own, while the latter offers images of impending doom and also serves as another experience stand-in:
“It never happens when you’re thinking about it,” she once observed. “Earthquake, earthquake, earthquake,” she said.
“Earthquake, earthquake, earthquake,” I said.
The narrator has been secretly hoping that if she avoids thinking about her friend’s death, it won’t have to happen, and her friend also seems to be of this persuasion, hence their excessive focus on the random detail. But her friend does die, and an implication of the theme seems to be that you can’t have life without death, just like things only become meaningful in comparison to the meaningless.