Thirty Days of Stories: Day Nine

Collected stories amy hempel1

Title: And Lead Us Not into Penn Station

Author: Amy Hempel

Appears in: At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom [1990]; The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel [2006]

Premise: An unnamed narrator comments on the things she sees around New York.

Thoughts: The initial promise of this series was that I wouldn’t revisit stories I’d already read, which makes talking about Amy Hempel rather difficult, considering my copy of her Collected Stories is one of my more thumbed and marked up editions. Because, little secret?

I want to be Amy Hempel.

Another secret?

Your favourite author probably wants to be Amy Hempel, too.

Hempel, who I’ve just learned was studied under Raymond Carver’s old editor Gordon Lish [aka ‘Captain Fiction’], has a gift for constructing sentences with surgical precision that most of us amateurs can only read and exhale long, slow breaths at. She’s really that good, and seems to be criminally under-read, likely due to her relatively limited output and apparent refusal to write novels, focusing on shorter works and her career as an instructor at Harvard [Harvard!].

Point being, if you haven’t at least read ‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,’ I can’t fucks with you literarily.

‘…Penn Station,’ while at first read feeling structurally similar to a lame poem I, and likely a million other people wrote in high school, leaves all of us in the dust for the delicate construction of her images and the plainspoken pessimism of her conclusion.  It’s a brief story, three pages at its total, sitting with you like a daydream and then blowing away into dust.

The great things about stories like this, or the work of Lydia Davis, is that they can encourage the amateurs among us to not be completely beholden to traditional ideas of form and plot and structure. Not that I would ever argue against those things, I feel like amateurs are far too eager to toss them aside in fits of laziness.

No, what I mean is that frequently in fiction writing you find you write a passage or a line that might exceed the art of the rest of the story, but has to be cut because it doesn’t fit the overall work. What a story like this does is encourage passages like that to live on their own, to make a place for them. Just really give them a hard look beforehand.

Lesson: Effective narratives can flaunt the traditional rules of plot and story structure, but you better make damn sure you’ve got the goods before you try it. Don’t kid yourself, you know the goods when you see it.

Favourite line: Today, when a blind man walked into the bank, we handed him along to the front of the line where he ordered a BLT.

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