Amy Hempel's story "The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried" appears to be a bleak depiction of human selfishness and avoidance in the face of death. A woman visits her dying friend in hospital, but instead of staying to offer comfort, she departs abruptly, leaving her friend crying in the supply closet, with nurses flocking around her. According to critic Robert Peltier, the story evokes a climate of postmodern meaninglessness in which there is no difference between truth and lies because death is the inevitable result of all our actions. The narrator speaks to her friend in trivia, relying on pop culture references rather than real experience to define their relationship: "We were Lucy and Ethel, Mary and Rhoda in extremis" (Hempel 747). As Peltier notes, she is "fueled by a fear of all that is not material," of things she cannot see or control: earthquakes, flying, and ultimately, death. Her shallowness seems endemic of a consumer culture which glosses over real death with television violence, emphasizing the material over cerebral, and illusion over truth; the gates of the Palm Royale hospital are painted a cheerful "flamingo pink," to distract from the suffering taking place beyond them. Peltier remarks on the alarming implications of this postmodern condition: escapism supplants communication, allowing the narrator's fear to become "stronger than her sense of decency".
But when understood as a person coping with grief, the narrator is not as callous and morally vapid as Petlier makes her out to be. Her fear is a natural instinct, and her flight, if not entirely forgivable, is at least understandable as a life instinct, an act of self-preservation. Death underlies almost every aspect of the story, emerging in everything from the movie the friends watch on television, to the threat of earthquakes, to Hempel's unsettling imagery, and sinister characterization of the natural world. While Hempel is a postmodern writer, she is not as cynical or nihilistic as Petlier would have us believe.
[...] The slightly barbed way in which the narrator notes these details (her friend is pro by conceals her disturbance at seeing her so at home in a place of suffering, where she is loathe to even spend the day (Hempel 743). Her friend confirms her fears about the hospital, seeming to have already retreated from the world of the living, as represented by the “aggressive health” of the beach outside (746). Feeling guilty for her long absence, the narrator wonders why the nurse doesn't ask her why she hasn't visited her friend sooner. [...]
[...] More than a cynical exercise in postmodern apathy, the story is an exploration of real grief. Running beneath the flippant tone and gallows humor, is raw, inconsolable sadness at the loss of friend, tangled up in the guilt of personal failure, which Petlier fails to give credit to. The narrator struggles with her fear, veiling it in trivial banter and seeking solace in meaninglessness, but this avoidance is fueled more by desperation than detachment. Her preoccupation with the “useless” stuff is a coping mechanism, as natural as the instinct to avoid pain or death. [...]
[...] Yet the way she describes the moment indicates not the selfish detachment that Petlier attributes to her, but a complex fusion of grief and terror which only leaving can relieve: felt weak and small and failed. Also exhilarated” (747). She can only express these feelings ambiguously in retrospect, and certainly not to her friend at the time, but the fact remains that she has these feelings; she is not emotionally detached. Her guilt is apparent in her admission of failure: was supposed to offer something. [...]
[...] The bed takes on the shape on a coffin, and the significance of a commitment the narrator is not ready to make: to help her friend die, and perhaps die a little herself. The climate of death validates the narrator's fears: immersed in death, it is no wonder she keeps checking the hole in her mask for warm spot where my breath, thank God, comes (743). Even the lively landscape of the beach is rife with danger: “things that just lie there, like this beach, are loaded with jeopardy,” the narrator observes (744). [...]
[...] Hempel points directly to her own weakness, exposing the vulnerable vein of grief beneath the ambiguity of this fractured narrative. do not know why looking back should show us more than looking the narrator says, but by writing the story, Hempel illustrates the illuminative qualities of retrospect (748). Attempting to explore her failure, Hempel has created a piece of art which both conceals and reflects the magnitude of her grief: it emerges in the gaps in her narrative, from under layers of meaningless, evoking a psychological inability to deal with the grief directly. [...]
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