“Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep” by Amy Hempel

11May05

I was pleased to find a piece of Amy Hempel’s work in a short story collection because I have seen her work lauded by many sources. Based upon my impressions of this story, her praise is well-deserved. And I want to learn how to knit. Well, I wanted to learn how to knit, but after reading this story knitting seems a little pathetic.

This story deals with abortion in an unexpected, in my opinion, way. While I liked Alice Walker’s “The Abortion”, I didn’t find the content too surprising. But Hempel’s using knitting as a surrogate for reproduction was truly unique.

Learning to knit was the obvious thing. The separation of tangled threads, the working-together of raveled ends into something tangible and whole—this mending was as confounding as the groom who drives into a stop sign on the way to his wedding. Because symptoms mean just what they are. What about the woman whose empty hand won’t close because she cannot grasp that her child is gone?

I’m still trying to puzzle out this paragraph. It quite clearly introduces the idea that the main character has become consumed by knitting as a “symptom” of some emotional experience—an abortion as the reader learns later. The phrase that most puzzles me is “this mending was as confounding as the groom who drives into a stop sign on the way to his wedding.” “Confounding.” Why does she use “confounding” there? Perhaps Hempel is trying to emphasize the apparently contradictory actions: a man on his way to a supposedly joyous occasion causes tragedy by driving into a pole; a woman who has just destroyed a “child” spends all of her time creating things. But where is the paradox in a mother unable to close her hand?

I also found this passage intriguing:

I remembered when another doctor made the news. A young retarded boy had found his father’s gun, and while the family slept, he shot them all in bed. The police asked the boy what he had done. But the boy went mute. He told them nothing. Then they called in the doctor.
“We know you didn’t do it,” the doctor said to the boy, “but tell me, did the gun do it?”
And yes, the boy was eager to tell him just what the gun had done.
I wanted the same out, and Dr. Diamond wouldn’t let me have it.

What does she want the out from? Conceiving the child or aborting the child? Or maybe both? Perhaps this suggestion sounds a little silly, but I would imagine that an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy might make a woman feel as though her body had betrayed her. The gun (her reproductive system) had done it and not her. Her boyfriend(?) has a similar reaction to her being pregnant, saying that “he had never made a girl pregnant before. He said that he had never even made a girl late.”

Translation of the title: “Begin, Slip Together, Increase, Continue, Repeat.” I’m trying to figure out the significance of the title. Obviously, it is significant to the main character’s obsession with knitting. But does the title suggest something besides knitting? Like sex, maybe? Eh, probably not. I considered the possibility given that the story pertains to reproduction, but Hempel only discusses pregnancy really and not the sex that causes it. And “begin, slip together, increase, continue, repeat” doesn’t have the same resonance with reproduction as it does with sex.

Besides serving as some kind of penance, knitting also seems to provide the main character with an elite group to join. When the main character finally sees Dale Anne’s baby, she instantly wishes that she had what she does not. However, while she cannot understand Dale Anne’s position, she can understand the language of knitting:

I scan the instructions abbreviated like musical notation: K 10, sl 1, K2 tog, psso, sl 1, K2 to end. I feel I could sing these instructions. It is compression of language into code; your ability to decipher it makes you privy to the secrets shared by Ingrid and the women at the round oak table.

She also mentions at the end of the story the few women of Fair Isles who know how to knit, who knit with undyed wool because there is no lichen to color the wool. Denied the possibility to reproduce, this woman has submerged herself in an activity associated mostly with women, an activity that few women still pursue.

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