And Lead Us Not Into Penn Station by Amy Hempel, 1990
The magic trick:
Using bizarre, indirect snippets to describe the story’s setting
The Amy Hempel-Grace Paley comparison is often made, and rightfully so. If you’re looking to make that case, “And Lead Us Not Into Penn Station,” is a great story to pick. It pairs very nicely with Paley’s “Gloomy Tune,” both stories portray rough, urban environments without using physical description.
What we get here instead is the creation of a setting through the words and actions of various characters. And they’re strange little snippets. Even by Hempel’s often high standards of indirectness, this is indirect stuff. You have to translate the bizarre of the vignette into something that makes sense in your imagination. But it’s not the author just being clever for clever’s sake. The setting necessitates the bizarre. It’s a dangerous place, and the way that we just accept this danger and squalor as being part of everyday life for some people, well, that’s pretty bizarre.
And that’s quite a trick on Hempel’s part.
Women who live alone in fear of intruders call the local precinct for advice. “Keep your doorknobs highly polished,” an officer tells them. “When someone breaks in, we can get clear prints.”
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