The Empty Cafe

By Michael Hoffman

In the novella the concludes Michael Hoffman’s The Empty Café, a man boarding at a Vancouver guest house tells his hostess that he slept the previous night “like a dead man – or like an innocent man, which may come to the same thing.”

The idea that being alive means being guilty (of something) is maintained throughout the stories in The Empty Café. Guilt is the very price of consciousness; one needn’t do anything at all. A professor falsely accused of sexually assaulting a young girl still accepts guilt as a kind of debt to the possible. Another professor (a hint that this is literary fiction) learns that his son is guilty of murder and freely confesses to the crime himself.

Books are written out of other books, and it’s clear that Crime and Punishment is haunting the stories of The Empty Café. Indeed, it is introduced several times by direct reference. But Raskolnikov’s guilt is his punishment, while for Hoffman guilt and punishment never seem to fully relate. In the final story guilt seems to be something shared in by all humanity, making justice an enigma.

If guilt, even a guilty imagination, is a given, then our supposedly normal, innocent life is a lie (or, in the case of children, at terrible risk). The surface world of appearances is always “hanging by a thread” in Hoffman, threatened by dark chaotic forces, secret passions, and unexpected violence. At any moment lives are liable to fall apart like the proverbial house of cards.

This is moral fiction, and most moral fiction has a tendency to get preachy and overwrought – a trap Hoffman can’t always avoid. Fate is frequently introduced as a plot element and many of the characters seem to be little more than philosophical counters. Too often the dialogue sounds like something out of translated Greek drama or the plays of T. S. Eliot. A random sample:

“Excuse me for intercepting you like this . . . I took the liberty of following you home last night, and now I am come to inquire after the young lady. My presence seems to have upset her.”
“It’s very kind of you to take so much trouble . . . I guess she was just tired. She woke up this morning and was fine. I’m sure she would be very glad of the opportunity to apologize . . . “

This can only be taken in small doses. Hoffman is a thought-provoking storyteller with a palpable earnestness, but his writing has an unnatural quality, occasionally both self-aware and second-hand. With all of its energy and moral vision, The Empty Café only needs to be more at ease.

Review first published online April 17, 2002.


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