Ms. Hempel Chronicles, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s new and very funny second novel (her first, Madeleine is Sleeping, was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award), presents as a series of loosely related but satisfyingly cohesive chapters that began their lives as short stories in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker, The Georgia Review and the Best American Short Stories.
The Chronicles’ heroine is Beatrice Hempel, a neophyte middle school teacher in her late 20s, who chose her profession both for the promise of doing “something generous and worthwhile” as well as for its “tremendous opportunities for leisure.” But, as with so many things, the reality turns out to be at odds with the dream, and Ms. Hempel finds, instead, that her job invades her “like a mild but inexorable infection.” As the first chapter lays it out:
Ms. Hempel was not, she knew, a very good teacher. She made easy plays at popularity: dismissing class a few minutes early on Friday afternoons; beginning each year by reading the Philip Larkin poem about how your parents fuck you up; pretending not to hear when the kids did cruel and accurate impressions of her colleagues. She bribed them with miniature chocolate bars. She extracted compliments from them. She promised herself that she would decorate her classroom with photographs of great women writers, but she never did.
When her earnest attempts at meaningful assignments result in an exponentially large workload, Ms. Hempel settles on “pop quizzes,” which, she discovers, have the advantage of being easily marked in front of the television. She falls for the boys that the girls in her class deem “crush-worthy,” wilting when their sticky hands happen to brush against hers. She struggles to balance her deep-seated desire to be liked with the need for appropriateness, assigning novels with sex and swearing that raise parents’ eyebrows, but boost her currency with her pupils.
Chapters about Ms. Hempel’s upbringing by her professorial white father and Chinese mother confirm what we come to suspect: that she is a lifelong conformist who flirts only with the outer trappings of subversion. As a teenager, she dresses like a punk rocker in outfits “ingeniously designed to disguise sluttiness as irony” yet still finds she cannot bring herself to spit her gum on the sidewalk, her rebellion stifled by the fact that “She cared too much about making other people cross with her.” At work, she is naively oblivious to the sexual dalliances of her colleagues, and tries to disguise her shock — and envy — when they are pointed out to her.
The inner conflict that eats away at Ms. Hempel’s boils down to the fact that she is pretending to be something she is not: cool, laid-back, and cynical. She is, rather, someone who loved “enthusiasm, in nearly all its forms.” Ultimately, the façade proves too much to maintain, and Ms. Hempel finds herself desperately searching for a way out, the purposeful breaking of her own limbs and pregnancy considered by her as possible options.
Tales of middle school are usually told from the point of view of its survivors, with the teacher as oblivious drone, or mitigator of pre-adolescent angst. Bynum’s transparent, self-conscious but somehow deeply likeable character raises the question of whether some of us ever really overcome these anxieties, of whether our promotion from slave to master offers any kind of respite from our crushing insecurities. When, years later, an old student tells Ms. Hempel she is still warmly remembered, Ms. Hempel finds herself “smiling uncontrollably,” suffused, childlike, with a “ridiculous feeling of joy.”
Bynum’s book reads like an anatomy of vulnerability with its cringing, heartbreaking detail mercifully offset by a saving, redemptive humour. This is a sure-footed writer of unflamboyant, pervasive intelligence; one to be watched, and anticipated.