At her worst, Hempel seems like James Michener's evil twin from another dimension, writing fiction that is so cryptic, so verbally parsimonious as to be fragmentary. This short-story collection, her first book in five years, includes only 132 pages—and 41 of them are either totally blank or carry only a title.
Nobody wants to buy prose by the pound, but Hempel's minimalist approach often makes her stories seem like movie trailers: There's good stuff but not enough to be entertaining or enlightening.
When Hempel gives herself room, she creates wickedly vivid characters and moods. In the relatively expansive (11-page) "The Day I Had Everything," she sketches an informal club-therapy group seemingly devoted to viewing death in different ways. It's also a club, where the buffet includes beer and crullers, where women say things like "Many men named Pablo entered my life this week."
This is a writer who can, indeed, effectively compress ideas: "The day of the wedding, before a SWAT team of beauticians arrived to do the bride, the young son from the groom's first marriage gave his new stepmother a picture he had drawn of a scowling Green Beret with a sword through his flaming head."
Too much compression, though, and you end up with a black hole, which is something else altogether, but hardly literature. (Knopf, $17.95)