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Amy Hempel

August 23, 2012

So, you might want to read the story before going any further.

The first phrase of the story is “‘I think it’s the other way around,’…” which is a great way to start a story, with immediate contradiction. On one very simple level, it gives the story a sense of continuation pointing to a prior, unchronicled chronology. The story is bigger than itself. On another level, as a statement of contradiction, it challenges preset notions, whatever they may be. Although the statement refers to the specific conversation being had between the boy and his sister, it also addresses the reader and what prejudices we may have built based on, if nothing else, the title: “Today Will be a Quiet Day.” What does that title mean? Straight forward, it sounds placid, ordinary. So then maybe it won’t be a quiet day with the boy’s prediction of earthquakes and destruction and death. Later we find out what the title refers to, the quietude of death, which further gives us something about which we can be wrong. “Today Will be a Quiet Day” is about unstated death, but is also about life and its messiness or loudness, the jokes the boy tells, how the father is raising his children alone and what is going to happen to them.
Amy Hempel seems to like applying phrases to two things at once. One, the object or subject within the story and then also the idea the story is conveying. So that phrases take on a larger meaning where they, alone, would have been meaningless. For example, the girl tells a joke about a guillotine the punchline of which is: “there’s the problem,” which acts as punchline, critique of explaining punchlines, and commentary on death and the specter of death.
I didn’t really like this story at first read. It felt too flippant or dismissible with all of the jokes. Not that a story has to be serious, but I felt the joking overshadowed what was really at heart. Hempel seems to want to talk about one thing while actually talking about another, which I admire. But I don’t know how well it worked. Maybe I would have preferred it the other way around.

Favorite sentence: “You think you’re safe, …but it’s thinking you’re invisible because you closed your eyes.”

Questions for the class: How do jokes work in this story or in stories in general? What does one learn from this story as a writer, reader or human being?

Here are some student responses to this story.

Here are some interviews with Amy:
Paris Review
Powells
The Cult

Our next story is “Volunteers are Shining Stars” by Curtis Sittenfeld.

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One Comment
  1. I’ll answer the second question first: What does one learn from this story as a writer, reader or human being?

    I would have to spend more time with this piece, but what immediately resonates with me is a subtle feeling of inevitable dread, maybe echoing from the dark nature of the jokes and the, as you said, “messiness” and “loudness” of the family. I feel that something bad is going to happen, but it doesn’t. In fact, the end pulls things together in a way that brings serenity to mind as if Hempel is trying to say that death, even in its inevitability, has not yet come and here with the family, here, there is peace. Or maybe the jokes are ways for Hempel to confront death in an indirect way?

    As a reader I appreciate such passages like,

    “He meant you could not tease her about animals. Once, during dinner, that cat ran into the dining room shot from guns. He ran around he table at top speed, then spun out on the parquet floor into a leg of the table. He fell over onto his side and made short coughing sounds.

    “Isn’t he smart?” the girl had crooned, kneeling beside him. “He knows he’s hurt.”

    I like the naivety, the immaturity, the wit and the humor all bundled into one anecdote, although it is laced with some kind of violence (as are most of the jokes in the piece). I also like the sentence you highlighted above. Beautiful.

    This piece is deceptive. I didn’t catch most of humor at first, but after a second read, after knowing how things turned out, I felt more able to relax into it and smile. Two words that come to mind when thinking about the piece are “cruelty” and “care.” I’m not sure how they fit in.

    How do jokes work in this story?

    Are the jokes making light of the “messiness” of this family? Spinning their problems into humor, and in doing so, masking some underlying issues? Or, are the jokes meant to be taken as spoken celebrations of life? Perhaps this family is so close that there are no deeper underlying issues and their ability to joke shows us that closeness? Even the father’s future tombstone message is quite funny as if all he ever wanted was peace and quiet or how he has already made peace with death on some level.

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