In Amy Hempel’s short story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” the masks worn by the narrator and her terminally ill friend symbolize the pair’s habits of hiding their true feelings. The masks that these two characters wear are used to keep the sick friend from inhaling germs in her weakened state, but the narrator especially hides behind her mask, trying to stifle her guilt at the fear she feels when confronted with the reality of her friend’s imminent demise. The reader can infer that the dying friend was always the strong one before she got sick, and now the narrator feels that she needs to take up the leading role due to her friend’s incapacitation. The narrator fears her new role in the dynamic of their friendship; she doesn’t feel able to maintain control of her emotions as she watches her friend die.
Amy Hempel’s minimalist style is an excellent vehicle for the portrayal of the two young women in this story. While her lack of description leaves out detail about the setting of some of the scenes, it does a wonderful job of showing the narrator’s awkwardness in dealing with her friend’s illness. The narrator is afraid of many things, from earthquakes to flying, but her friend’s death terrifies her to the point where she doesn’t even want to think about it. The story’s flow is interrupted by time lapses, both forward and back, as the narrator tries to avoid thinking about her friend’s death and how she isn’t brave enough to stay and comfort her friend in her final days. This choppiness enhances Hempel’s minimalist style, which I believe is an admirable stylistic choice in her storytelling.