On the dust jacket of Enormous Changes at the Last Minute appears Paley’s comment that she “writes stories because art is too long and life is too short.” Hers is an unusual accomplishment, for though the short story has earned its position as a respectable genre, few authors have achieved repute without venturing beyond its limits. The acclaimed masters of the short story—James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Honoré de Balzac, and Anton Chekhov—all wrote novels or plays as well. Paley’s reputation is based on three relatively slim collections. Nevertheless, the first, The Little Disturbances of Man, was reissued by a different publisher nine years after its original appearance, a rare event in the history of the short story.
Paley’s early interest in poetry inculcated in her art the values of verbal economy and the layering of meaning; her prose style is highly poetic—compact, full of imagery, and less reasoned than sensed or felt. Some of the pieces in Later the Same Day, such as “Mother,” “This Is a Story About My Friend George, the Toy Inventor,” and “In This Country, but in Another Language, My Aunt Refuses to Marry the Men Everyone Wants Her To,” are so brief that they seem less stories than sketches or impressions.
Even in structuring her longer stories, Paley rarely accepts conventional formulae, choosing instead an often meandering movement with loose shifts in time, tone, or for the point of view. A glimpse into Paley’s technique may be found in “A Conversation with My Father” (1974), where the narrator, a writer, is asked by her father to compose a traditional story but finds it impossible to write that type of “plot, the absolute line between two points. . . . [B]ecause it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or imagined, deserves the open destiny of life.” Such apparent plotlessness demands an equal openness of the reader, for very few standard expectations will be fulfilled. Occasionally she ventures into more fantastic or artificially stylized ground, as in the seemingly absurdist “The Floating Truth” (1959) or the whimsically postured “At That Time: Or, The History of a Joke” (1985).
For the most part, Paley’s stories, like poems, ask to be read aloud. They have a conversational tone, and the often awkward precision of meaning, jarring usages, and odd logic create an immediacy of communication. This very particular language traces back to a polyglot family tradition. Paley’s immigrant parents and relatives spoke Russian, Yiddish, and English, and her own Bronx vernacular was influenced by their very different syntax and rhythms. Certain of her stories, such as “Goodbye and Good Luck” (1959) and “Faith in the Afternoon” (1960), delightfully convey distinct voices from the Jewish American immigrant community.
Though seldom explicitly autobiographical, Paley’s stories contain elements of her personal history. They often focus on Jews, mothers, and activists, and are generally set in New York City. A number of them are connected by common characters, centered around Faith, a wryly self-mocking divorcé, her parents, her friends Ruth and Edie, her sons Richard and Tonto, and her husbands and neighbors. Faith (the name suggests Grace) is generally considered Paley’s fictional alter ego; her presence gives the individual stories personal reverberations and gives the collections overall a sense of unity.
Faith, like Paley, is a single mother concerned equally with the quality of life in Greenwich Village and in the future of the human race. Progressive social and political issues, though never completely eclipsing the portrayal of character and relationship, are important to Paley. Her treatment of women, their problems, their ambitions, and their relations with men has earned her the admiration of feminist readers. Some stories feature immigrants, minorities, and the poor—such as the Puerto Rican family in “In the Garden” (1985) or the black mother in “Lavinia: An Old Story” (1985)—or candidly portray the brutality of city life, as in “Samuel” (1968) and “Little Girl” (1974). In the light of the poverty, violence, and disease that Paley’s characters witness and endure, there is no choice but to have opinions, to voice them shamelessly, and to act upon them with courage.
Paley’s writing, though political, is very rarely didactic, pessimistic, or angry. As a writer, she is attuned to the subtle signals and meanings of human emotion and communication, whatever the situation or backdrop, and this sensitivity provides a foundation of warmth and humor. Her satire, applied to old gossips or overzealous activists, is never malicious, and her overriding concern is ultimately to amuse, to touch, and to remind her reader of the wonderful joy and variety of being alive.
“The Loudest Voice”
First published: 1959 (collected in The Little Disturbances of Man, 1959)
Type of work: Short story
An outspoken and strong-willed little Jewish girl is chosen to narrate her school’s Christmas play.
“The Loudest Voice” is the first-person-voice recollection of Shirley Abramowitz, who remembers her childhood as a place where “every window is a mother’s mouth bidding the street shut up” and where her “voice is the loudest.” Shirley is the daughter of Jewish immigrants, a bright and uninhibited child who talks loudly and incessantly and, like her father, fearlessly speaks her mind.
On a cold November morning, Shirley is summoned by the teacher organizing the school’s Christmas play. Knowing that she has a loud and clear voice, he asks her to be his narrator. The Christmas play, and the involvement in it of Jewish children such as Shirley, occasions debate and commentary throughout the Jewish community, where some embrace assimilation into primarily Christian America, while others firmly safeguard the integrity of ethnic and religious identity. In the Abramowitz home, Shirley’s mother disapproves, but her father counters with the argument, “In Palestine the Arabs would be eating you alive. Europe you had pogroms. Argentina is full of Indians. Here you got Christmas.”
Shirley herself is proud of her voice and eager to perform; during the month of rehearsals her excitement focuses her usually dispersed energies, and she becomes the director’s efficient and trusted assistant. The day of the play arrives; Shirley narrates sensitively and admirably, giving an objective and amusing account of her classmates’ earnest presentation. The story concludes later that night as the Abramowitzes and a neighbor discuss the day’s events in their characteristically opinionated fashion, and Shirley, lying in bed, silently says her prayers and then loudly yells to quiet her parents’ arguments.
In “The Loudest Voice,” Paley creates a delightful and very immediate protagonist. Shirley’s personality is defined by her comments—her perception of the loneliness of unpopular people, her innocent fusion of the Christmas play with the very Jewish world in which it is performed, and the overheard conversations and repartee that have remained in her memory. The story’s title signals an affirmation of personal freedom, for Shirley, who is constantly being silenced in her day-to-day life, proudly believes that a voice worthy of the Christmas play must also have the power to make both its opinions and prayers heard. The story contrasts loud voices with the silence of death, memory, and contemplation, and implicit in Shirley’s pride is Paley’s own valuation of the freedom of self-expression.
As she tells her story, Shirley makes a few simple comments that establish the distance of passed time, the death of her parents, and the warmth with which she views the past. The incident of the Christmas play, though simple and basically undramatic, is like a prism reflecting many facets of her childhood and the life of that remembered community. Her father’s assertion, “What belongs to history, belongs to all men,” informs Shirley’s own generous feeling toward the municipal Christmas tree which, like the Jews, “was a stranger in Egypt,” and defines her open attitude toward life. Through many such touches, Paley portrays with empathetic lightness the ghetto mentality as it makes the transition to acceptance and comfort, and, in a larger view, distills centuries of Jewish exile and accommodation into the experience of a single child.
“An Interest in Life”
First published: 1959 (collected in The Little Disturbances of Man, 1959)
Type of work: Short story
A young woman, deserted by her husband to raise four children alone, learns to find happiness in her simple life.
“An Interest in Life” holds nothing of the bizarre or extraordinary: It is a story about an ordinary woman named Virginia, her ordinary children, and the ordinary problems she faces making ends meet and finding happiness and love in an imperfect world.
The story begins as Virginia’s husband deserts her, ostensibly to join the Army, after giving her a broom and dustpan for Christmas. The gift is not a kind one; the relations between Virginia and her husband have been bitter and sarcastic. Once he departs, Virginia begins adjusting to the life of a single twenty-six-year-old woman raising four young children—dealing not only with social service agencies, schools, and bills, but also with loneliness, anger, and the lingering mystery of where her husband went and whether he will ever return.
Into Virginia’s misery and bitterness comes John Raftery, the married son of her widowed neighbor, as if, it seems, to “rescue” her. John offers her his devotion and comfort, but Virginia is hesitant to accept it fully. Still, he comes to see her faithfully every Thursday night, and his openheartedness and lightness of spirit bring life into her home, effecting subtle changes in the children’s and Virginia’s outlooks. In the comfort of John’s undemanding affection, she recalls the wildness of her passion for her husband and their tumultuous marriage, poisoned by his arrogance and cruelty, culminating in the broom and the desertion.
Then one Thursday, suddenly, without explanation, John stops coming. After two weeks’ absence, Virginia abandons hope of his return. Dejected, she decides to go on a television game show called “Strike it Rich” and makes the requisite list of personal troubles. “The list when complete could have brought tears to the eye of God if He had a minute.” It somehow cheers her up, however, and she realizes that all a person really needs “is an interest in life, good, bad, or peculiar.”
Once she realizes this, the doorbell rings. It is John, returning to say goodbye forever, but Virginia’s list and John’s mocking response to her troubles—“They’d laugh you out of the studio. Those people really...
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