ENG441b: Contemporary American Literature, Fiction
Prof. E. Joy
6 February 2008
Wading in the Slipstream: A Close Reading of Amy Hempel's “The Uninvited”
“Just when you think you’ve dreamt it, it comes again.”
Struggling to define a new genre of literature, Bruce Sterling (with the assistance of Richard Dorsett) coined the term “Slipstream.” Sterling claims that this new genre has “set its face against consensus reality.” His ultimate description of slipstream is that “this is a kind of writing which simply make you feel very strange” (Sterling). This intriguing, but uninformative, definition only makes sense when you closely examine an example of slipstream literature. Amy Hempel’s short story, “The Uninvited,” beautifully illustrates some of the techniques used to create the strangeness that characterizes slipstream.
One method Hempel uses to evoke strangeness is to slip in and out of time. Her narrative does not move across time in a traditional, chronological fashion, nor does it make use of flashbacks in the accepted sense. Instead, she creates an intricate braid of time, interweaving strands of present, near past, far past, and unrelated fiction. This complexity of time highlights the situation of the fifty-year-old narrator in “The Uninvited,” who counts off the days that she is “late” and fears pregnancy. Obsessed with this fear, she creates the time braid through free-association about her past and memories of a movie she associates with pregnancy tests. The narrator seeks to make time stop, unbinding herself from its forward flow (329), thereby staving off the pain of a decision “made quickly, and not at all quickly forgotten” (320).
Another technique Hempel uses to inject strangeness into “The Uninvited” is to twist the meaning of traditional symbols and images. Throughout the story, for example, she uses real estate to symbolize the violated body of her narrator. In the mainstream world, homes are sacred and inviolate castles that symbolize love and security. In the slipstream world, however, homes are frequently deserted and vulnerable, their owners transient. When she is attacked, the narrator is house-sitting, living in a home filled with the mementoes of other people’s lives (332). Her own vacant home is attacked by both the weather, causing a burst pipe, and by marauding mice, “scrabbling in the cabinets and behind the walls” (319). The newspaper provides details of pointless, nonsensical attacks on other homes; in one, the thermostat is turned up high enough to warp the floors, while in another, nothing is stolen but all kitchen cabinets are neatly and methodically emptied (319). The ancestral home of the narrator’s ex-husband (no longer a real home but merely a show-place) has been so neglected and pillaged that “by the time the family voted funds for an alarm, there was nothing of value left to protect” (326). Even fences, normally a protective device, are pulled apart and burned in bonfires on the beach (331). Hempel uses the fate of property to echo the fragility of the narrator as she recalls her rape experience: “It is not always desire, either. Except as the desire to save oneself by doing what one is told to do by the person who has the knife” (330).
Another twisted image used by Hempel involves the traditionally venerated status of motherhood. “All of us should be safe in a tiny velvet pouch,” (319) says the narrator, conjuring up an image of a fetus in the womb. But if there is a fetus, it is not welcome in this setting. The piece of valuable jewelry that prompts this remark is not protected and cherished, as a child would presumably be—instead, it is left loose in a drawer, surrounded by mouse droppings “like fat, dark grains of rice” (319). In fact, Hempel uses multiple images to illustrate the narrator’s fear of a possible pregnancy and her desire not to “contain” a fetus. Trying to replace a ruined soaker hose with what turns out to be a regular hose, she stabs the rubber repeatedly, “making my own goddamn soaker hose” (328), thus ensuring that nothing is contained. A vase (classic symbol of a pregnant woman) falls from the mantel, spilling all its contents. The narrator’s ironic response to this event shows her tortured feelings about containment: “What a relief, this loss” (329). “Containment is also holy” (329), the narrator is told, but not under these circumstances. Divorced and raped, she has no frame of reference for a positive relationship with either a man or a child: “Successful collaborations inspire envy in me. But ‘collaborate,’ someone once told me, also means ‘to betray’” (330).
Hempel also incorporates allusions to the unexpected as a way of threading strangeness through her story. In “The Uninvited,” she accomplishes this through multiple references to the 1944 movie, The Uninvited. Quotes from, references to, and summaries of this movie both interrupt and interact with Hempel’s narrative. The movie revolves around an old house haunted by two ghosts, one representing a protective, loving mother, and the other an angry, murderous mother. Exploring the braid of time, we discover both of these mothers in the narrator. As a college student, she aborted her first child, obtaining medical consent by means of a threat to kill herself if not allowed to end the pregnancy (321). At a later time, however, she was hospitalized as she struggled to keep a pregnancy, an attempt which was ultimately unsuccessful. “Sometimes the body takes over to make a decision the mind can’t make” (323), she is told by a doctor. This remark echoes forward in time, as the narrator recoils from the possibility of motherhood in her present circumstances.
Perhaps the most effective device that Hempel utilizes to add strangeness, however, is the perversion of the expected. Faced by a knife-wielding rapist, the narrator does whatever she has to do to survive, even if that means creating the hollow mockery of a relationship. “Stay,” she tells the violent but impotent man. “It’s enough that you’re here” (333). This causes him to put down the knife and embrace her, ironically allowing him to consummate the rape itself. Faced with the possibility of a pregnancy, the narrator is so fearful she cannot even read the results of her test kit. Instead, she offers herself as a test subject for a paranormal experiment being conducted on dogs. This is the final, perverse image Hempel leaves us with—the narrator down on all fours like a dog, waiting for the response of a dangling chain to her magnetic field to determine whether she is pregnant or not.
All of the devices and techniques incorporated by Hempel into “The Uninvited” give it the air of strangeness described by Sterling. Though the story presents seemingly realistic settings and characters, Hempel subtly skews their presentation. The result is a narrative intended to “sarcastically tear at the structure of ‘everyday life’” (Sterling). This is slipstream writing at its finest; strange realism (or realistic strangeness) that haunts the reader long after the story is done.