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Amy Hempels short story, In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried is a semi autobiography heartrending story dedicated to her beloved friend, Jessica Wolfson, who died from terminally ill. This short story shows complicated emotions and feelings of grief and fear after losing a loved one. The narrator and the dying friend are unnamed due to affect the reader to get the story more personally. Hempel does not mention the names of the characters so the reader can imagine themselves related to the narrator and her dying friend by placing the emotions and feelings of their own to be the part of story. By revealing the characters' names in the story might present the reader not to get from the feelings of empathy and grief over losing beloved friend.
The style of "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried" is minimalism by using an economy with words and a focus on surface description instead of using superfluous with words and a depict of description. Hempel does well with this style because she can achieve amazingly throughout the critics. This short story is her first effort at writing story when she composed in Gordon Lish's class at Columbia. Her stories are very well-known because they were taught among university student in the class of short stories worldwide. "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried" originally appeared in TriQuarterly magazine in 1983 and then reprinted in Amy Hempel's first published collection of stories in 1985, Reasons to Live, as the most widely anthologized stories of the last quarter century. Hempel is now well-known as postmodern writer. She writes in theme of tragic comedy as if she attempts to hide the grief and sadness behind the smile. Hempel avoids the words mean exactly death in her story by using the symbol of death instead. It seems like she is still cannot cope with the grief and the loss. Even this story is minimalism but Hempel uses her talents to make reader understand her work like she is painting on the canvas page. Her language in this story is very beautiful by creating sentences as remarkable with the use of rhetoric and rhythm. Due to Amy Hempel's interview with the Paris Review magazine she was asked how to make stories strive for cohesion, from language to logic, to how an image develops. She told that the topic is music. Amy Hempel said:
"I have started a story knowing the beat, the rhythm of the first line or first paragraph, but without knowing what the words are. I will be doing the equivalent of humming a tune over and over again and then this tune will be translated into a sentence. So I might be thinking, da-da-da-da-da-da-dadada, that will become, "Tell me things I won't mind forgetting," which is the first line of In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried" (Hempel Interview. The Art of Fiction No. 176)
This story setting is in hospital near California coast. The narrator reveals her grief story with her dying friend who is unnamed. Both have much great time together since they were in college. The narrator has delayed visiting her ill best friend for two months because she fears of death and loss. The friend asks the narrator to tell her something that she will not mind forgetting. Stories that the narrator tells her dying friend are quite humor and light, the stories that are nonsense and trivia. Her friend enjoys listening to her story except the sad story one about the chimp with talking hands that has a heartbreaking in the end. Then the doctor enters her friend room and the narrator decides to walk out at the beach near the hospital. At the beach the narrator is walking along the coast while thinking about the relationship between her and her dying friend. The narrator returns from the beach and lies down near the friend watching a movie together while eating ice cream. Both fall asleep because of the injection. When the narrator wakes up, she tells her friend that she really wants to go home and she will not come back for sure. Actually, the narrator fears that she does not want to see a loved one die in front of her. Even though she feels weak, small, failed and also exhilarated but she still feels guilty that she has left her terminally ill friend alone. When the narrator said that she want to go home, the dying friend is speechless. She yanks off her mask and throws it on the floor and runs out of the room following the narrator. Next morning her friend is moved to the cemetery, the only one where Al Jolson is buried. The narrator is never come back to visit her or even visit her funeral ceremony. She is still being afraid of death and loss because she is not allowing herself to grieve the truth that her best friend is now died.
In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried shows how the narrator feels guilty with her dying beloved friend. In order to handle with that grief feeling, she has to leave her terminally ill friend by running away from the truth that a loved one is going to die soon. She does love her friend too much to lose her. Coping with the death or the loss of a loved one is not much easy. She sees herself as a useless and incapable person who cannot help anything and also leave her friend to die alone. The narrator escapes from the universal truth that everyone is born and dies. The fear is only a failure empathy that makes the narrator feels guilty.
Hempel's main character, the narrator, said, "The camera made me self-conscious and I stopped. It was trained on us from a ceiling mount-the kind of camera banks use to photograph robbers. It played us to the nurses down the hall in Intensive Care." (Hempel 1). She really worries about the hospital camera that is an impartial eye records something very different from the own her. The narrator does not want the nurses to look at and carp her because she does not do anything wrong. She has her own decision to not visit her terminally ill best friend and that does not mean she is a selfish person. All humans are struggling with the concepts of death, infirmity and loss of a loved one. It is her right to be afraid of all these kind. Waiting for her best friend's upcoming death is very painful for her. Now she realize that life is too short for wasting but she still chooses to act like this without realizing that would be fatal to her terminally ill friend. The narrator has a concept about how to deal with the upcoming dead by having super fun and pleasurableness. Amy Hempel writes:
"I had a convertible in the parking lot. Once out of that room, I would drive it too fast down the Coast highway through the crab smelling air. A stop in Malibu for sangria. The music in the place would be sexy and loud. They'd serve papaya and shrimp and watermelon ice. After dinner I would shimmer with lust, buzz with heat, life, and stay up all night." (Hempel 9)
For the ill best friend who is dealing with the upcoming death; however, she does not fear of death but fears of dying alone. She does not have more enough encourage leaving isolation. The problems follow her like a shadow, she is unable to run away from her illness. She is in Kübler-Ross stages of grief (Hempel 3). The ill friend is still locked in Denial stage which feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of possessions and individuals that will be left behind after death.
After the death of her beloved friend, the narrator enrolls in a fear of flying class (Hempel 10). Eventually, the narrator reveals about the talking hands chimp that has a sad outcome. The chimp had a baby and she losses her baby. A chimp mother is now fluent with the language of grief (Hempel 10). This is the important evidence that now the narrator allow herself getting better with all phobias. She really wants to handle with a fear of death and loss throughout the true life lessons. The first step to win the fear was admitting the fear and accepting the truth. Humans cope with the death in many various manners. Of course, in the beginning stage of fear, everyone is also afraid of it even if they had never faced the fear before. Admitting you are afraid of death and loss are not shameful but it means that you accept the truth that you are a living creature in universal. People can only hope to fully understand and handle it. As a mankind, we tend to fear everything what we do not understand even if it is substantial or abstract.
"On the morning she was moved to the cemetery, the one where Al Jolson's buried, I enrolled in a 'Fear of Flying' class. 'What is your worst fear?' the instructor asked, and I answered, 'That I will finish this course and still be afraid.'" (Hempel 10)
The symbol that is very noticeable in this short story is mask. The dying friend, the good doctor, the nurses or even Al Jolson were wearing mask. Mask is the only thing that we put on the face and we can hide emotions and feelings. The mask symbolizes the show that everyone is acting. In real life, people always wears mask to conceal the real them. Some put on mask to conceal hurting badly with a great big smile and some put on mask to be an acceptation in society. Al Jolson puts on black mask on his face because the black mask gives him a sense of being free and also the dying friend who wears a surgical mask to hide a grief and a fear of death.