Grace Paley Essay - Paley, Grace (Vol. 4)

Paley, Grace (Vol. 4)

Paley, Grace 1922–

Mrs Paley, an American short story writer, is the author of The Little Disturbances of Man, stories whose reputation lived primarily "underground" for ten years and were well known only to literary cognoscenti. She is an expert stylist and is considered by many to be one of the masters of the genre. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

Grace Paley's short stories are often so enjoyably ethnic that one may miss, on first reading, some of the several layers of feelings and meanings that are being transmitted…. Paley's writings … also reach deeper on a second reading. One has to become used to incongruous malapropisms, the deliberate innocence that conveys double meanings, the tough-kid humor that pretends to hide (but knows it doesn't) a sympathetic heart. [She] often [uses] language in odd, unexpected, vivid, sometimes lurching ways that make one stop and go back, annoyed, provoked, alerted to fresh perceptions. Paley's people, especially her women, are … engaged in struggles for self-definition or assertion, impeded as well as propelled by their passions and sympathies.

Ann Morrissett Davidon, "Women Writing," in The Nation, September 10, 1973, pp. 213-14.

Grace Paley never rambled; she moved swiftly and unerringly, however obliquely, to her goals. Writers told each other about her. During the '60s, between infrequent stories, she surfaced as an antiwar activist. And in 1968 "The Little Disturbances of Man" was formally republished, by a different house than had brought it out the first time—an event almost without parallel in the forlorn history of short-story collections….

Now here is a second collection [Enormous Changes at the Last Minute] quieter, more reflective, more openly personal than the first.

Walter Clemons, "The Twists of Life," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1974; reprinted by permission), March 11, 1974, p. 78.

Paley's stories, more often than not, are not really stories at all. Rather, at their best, they are elaborate introductions—through language, not through plot or character development—to a group of people who, like the author herself, believe they deserve the open destiny of life….

Paley, to this day, continues to be what the academics call an "uneven" writer; her successes are intermittent, unpredictable, often unshapely and without wholeness; there is no progression of revelation, the stories do not build one upon another, they do not—as is abundantly clear in this new book—create an emotional unity. On the other hand: Paley when she is good is so good that she is worth 99 "even" writers, and when one hears that unmistakable Paley voice one feels what can be felt only in the presence of a true writer: safe. The darkness is pushed back, solid warmth fills the gut, the universe is re-created in the company of a living intelligence; flesh and blood is on that page; it's good to be alive again. As one of Paley's characters might say: "You could die with the pleasure of it."

Two things in particular mark Paley's work: a deep sense of the ongoingness of life, and an even deeper sense of the New York idiom…. When the stories are successful, what is communicated is the ongoing, dream-like quality of the passage of "normal" time—as it surrounds the vividness of remembered feeling….

Paley is the ultimate New Yorker. She is to New York what William Faulkner is to Mississippi. Her pages are alive with the sounds of the savvy, street-smart New Yorker, and every character—regardless of age, sex, or education—knows his lines to perfection. In her extraordinary tone of voice and use of imagery, in the shape and rhythm of her language, is captured whole the incredible combination of shrewdness, naivete, appetite, and insight that is uniquely New York street life; and therein stands revealed in all its rich particularity the essence and emotional meaning of "idiom"; very few writers—and almost no New York writers—have ever managed it; and if that isn't an accomplishment to take one's hat off to, then I am hard put to know what the storyteller's art is all about.

Vivian Gornick, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), March 14, 1974, pp. 25, 28.

When Grace Paley's first collection of stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, appeared in 1959, it was clear at once that a fresh writing talent had presented itself. While her subject matter—the frantic life of urban men and women, mostly Jews, in and around the West Village—was hardly new, her style was very much her own. She wrote like the ultimate yenta, Molly Goldberg raised to a fine art without losing her roots in oral speech, and the stories she told were splendidly suited to her style, being mostly tales of feminine woe of the kind that would set Molly Goldberg's tongue wagging….

[Even] with the glitter of its style, over which Paley skates like some Olympic champion of language, Enormous Changes is a book of losses and failures that add up to one of the most depressing works of fiction to be published in the last decade, hardly a time noted for the prevalence of upbeat writing….

Most of Paley's stories are too short for any plot. They're quick sketches, blackouts, comic monologues spoken in a theater bereft of audience by a voice increasingly desperate for coherence.

Finally though, there isn't any coherence, or nothing more substantial than the style, to which we return in the absence of anything else that will reward our attention.

Michele Murray, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), March 16, 1974, p. 27.

I can't think of another writer who captures the itch of the city, or the complexities of love between parents and children, or the cutting edge of sexual combat as well as Grace Paley does….

In her last book, "The Little Disturbances of Man,"… Paley wrote chiefly about herself, her children, her parents, her awful ex-husband and her friends. The horizon is the same here, but bleaker—especially when she writes about her women friends…. Paley was among the first women fiction writers to describe in plain words how the world looked from behind a pile of diapers; she was, and is one of the few who also puts in a few cheers for children. The children in her stories, like almost all her characters, are, Deo gratias, good and bad, in transit, unfinished products, humans….

Many stories, though, including the title one, are marred by fishy, pat endings. I felt that was especially true of "Politics," in which a playground fence wrung out of the city by a group of militant mothers is vandalized the night it goes up by a policeman, and "Gloomy Tune," which ends so abruptly it practically skids off the page. I thought the fine, ironic note sounded a little false and shrill at times, too…. I suspect that Paley worries too much and guards, unnecessarily, against being thought too soft-hearted. "Living" and "The Burdened Man" hardly have a chance to get airborne before they end with a wry thump.

Grace Paley has spent a good part of her time and energy in the last decade working, as she herself puts it on the back flap, as a "somewhat combative pacifist"—a vocation for which I have nothing but admiration. Good as the present collection is, however, I suspect that its unevenness reflects the fact that during these past years she must often have felt that her attentions were needed in places far from her typewriter; or, to quote again, "that art is too long and life is too short."

Lis Harris, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 17, 1974, p. 3.

Grace Paley, as several people have said, is a regional writer, the scribe of a local moral and psychological dialect. She writes about New York City in the way that Giono wrote about Provence or George Borrow wrote about gypsies, quietly maps out a whole small country of damaged, fragile, haunted citizens. This would seem to suggest some sort of order and stability and continuity—at least a world which stays put long enough to be fixed in fiction by a writer who publishes a book only once every fifteen years…. But the suggestion is deceptive. This country is veined with cracks just waiting to open, as the language of [The Little Disturbances of Man and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute] is strewn with almost invisible landmines….

Grace Paley's language hovers constantly on the edge of an awful cuteness and whimsy, performs an elaborate balancing act, and for an example of what it looks like when the writer falls off the wire we have only to turn to the back of the jacket of the book, where we learn, in Grace Paley's own words, that she is a "somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist" and that she writes short stories "because art is too long and life is too short." Unfair evidence, perhaps. In the book the writer stays on the wire all right, and the successful act is obviously harder to illustrate….

Grace Paley is occasionally a bit defensive about the breeziness of her writing manner; seems tempted to apologize for it. If you're not blind or cockeyed, she implies, you need jokes in order to be able to look out at the cold street. But then if the jokes don't come off, you're left with your thin skin. If they come off too well, you've hidden the street away altogether. And the nagging question keeps returning: what if the world after all could be looked at without the filter of fun?

Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), March 21, 1974, pp. 21-2.

Mrs. Paley's new collection [Enormous Changes at the Last Minute] is a far cry from the first and memorable Little Disturbances of Man. In the intervening time, a tough wit has given way to archness, and coherence has yielded to obscurantism. There has always been a strident ethnicity to her work, and in this regard, happily, her voice has not changed; Mrs. Paley has one of the best ears going for dialect of the inward kind, the sort of thing that confers a painful vitality on stories like "Faith in the Afternoon" or "A Conversation With My Father." These excellent works aside, it is clear in this collection that Mrs. Paley's art has been given over almost entirely to politicized themes and situations, in a fashion that is all too familiar. It is one that appears to have been nurtured in those pleasant regions of political society where one is exposed regularly to the agreement of comrades and partisans, a region in which one becomes habituated to the conveniences of a shared frame of reference. It is not the best sort of nourishment for writing…. With the exceptions noted, it would appear, from this collection at least, that an extraordinarily good writer has left off the business of story making and has offered in its place a sort of sociological shorthand—and this … in tones which make clear that when one is beset by the apocalyptic vision, the ordinary lives of men and women are beside the point, and there can be neither shape nor coherence to events in those lives. Mrs. Paley is not the first writer—nor will she be the last—to have proved, if proof were still needed, that progressive politics, which advances so many estimable causes, is a downright heavy burden on the art of fiction.

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 23, 1974, p. 45.

Some of [the stories in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute] are mere wisps—a filament of character, a frisson of nuance. A few are too fanciful by half. What makes the collection very much worth reading is the author's ardent belief in her characters. Paley finds all her people exceptional, and she describes them with a charge of feeling that is unfailingly seductive.

This kind of a cappella writing is a very chancy business. Paley usually succeeds because she is a poised, naturally gifted writer who trusts her own quirky, ironic imagination. The stories—whether two pages or 20—run their courses as cleanly and surely as arrows flying in air.

Martha Duffy, "Straight Arrow," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), April 29, 1974, p. 108.

Mrs. Paley takes a firm stand against gloom—and for several extra-literary reasons that can be discerned in her work. She is naturally cheerful—trite as that sounds—and, in fact, a born comedienne. She is a comforting woman, aware that "hospitable remarks" can make a great difference in the tenor of life. And, having grown up "in the summer sunshine of upward mobility," as she puts it, she shares in the great American dream, the belief that the world can be made a better place to live in. But the way the world wags these days, she has a hard time keeping her spirits up. She tries. And the signs of strain are apparent in her lack of wind—she writes short short stories and not many of them—in her tone, resolutely airy or ruefully sincere, and especially in her endings, which seem contrived or tacked on. She knows the importance of a last line in a short short story and, skillful as any poet, she knows how to make it ring. But with a strange effect—as if anxious to ward off pain, to avoid the note of finality, or to free the subject from the shackles of grim fact….

Mrs. Paley is right to avoid looking tragedy in the face; she knows where her talent lies. It is, if not for comedy exactly, for virtuoso mimicry. I would guess—though she may rise up and contradict me—that the first thing she has in mind when starting work on one of her better stories is a voice. Definitely not a plot which would keep her to the straight and narrow and cramp her digressions, or a situation or a point of view or even a character, but a voice with a particular ring and particular turns of phrase. Out of this voice grows all the rest. Many of her stories are told in the first person by a speaker who casually reveals everything about himself—or more usually, herself. Others consist largely of dialogue with very little in the way of comment. A native New Yorker, she has an unerring ear for the various kinds of city speech. And she enjoys exploring all the neighborhood dialects….

Dialect in her hands is free of condescending folksiness or the brazen overriding of embarrassment inherent in the racial joke. It is local color, noted and relished and intensified, which serves to paint a portrait….

[She] finds a vocation in glorifying the accents of a now vanished and slightly fabulous Second Avenue and those of the old-age home. Accents that are now dying and no longer of use to her! For the worst enemy in Mrs. Paley's fight against gloom is … change—a fact of God—the disappearance of a familiar milieu, the need to find new material congenial to her, new people, new voices. When she comes on as herself, something is lacking, a certain sharpness of focus. It makes little difference whether she speaks in the first person or the third, disguised as someone called Faith or Alexandra, or whether she tells her own troubles or those of her friends and contemporaries. She becomes a mere sensibility, a succession of moods—breezy, anguished, charming, pensive—a writer of memoirs. But dialect offers her a role to play. She steps into it with a sense of release, she invents business, she improvises in character. She becomes an actress.

Burton Bendow, "Voices in the Metropolis," in The Nation, May 11, 1974, pp. 597-98.

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute is a group of very energetic stories. Some are wonderfully clear, extraordinarily authentic, and have an enthusiasm that makes them invigorating reading. Others are moral-ridden fables full of misplaced bile and small pronouncements that hinder and annoy the reader. A few are so very ethnic that they sag in the middle and collect a lot of debris.

When Grace Paley is writing well there is considerable force provided by the striking aptness of speech of her characters describing each other…. When she is not smothered by her concern for a very local issue, Paley's writing shows considerable breadth, and she is able to give her characters important freedom. One sits in a tree for an afternoon; another, running for exercise, is able to spend a few weeks at her former family home discovering the new occupants….

As a whole, the book is a fascinating conglomeration of ideas, fears, and limitations. The past is portrayed as chimeric, the present difficult, and the future chancy. One is not completely convinced, however, for the recurrent defects in craftsmanship obfuscate the image Paley would leave with us; and at times the aptness turns to coldness and the freedom she allows her inventions leaves them standing dreadfully still. Yet whatever its faults, the book has panache and the cast are creatures of courage, a rare virtue in modern literature.

Benjamin Reeve, in Harper's (copyright © 1974, by Harper's Magazine, Inc.; reprinted from the June, 1974 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission), June, 1974, p. 96.

Unlike those writers who lost their identity, their sense of humor or the ground they stood on in the '60s, Grace Paley maintains a gallant line of distinction between the world's mistakes and her own state of mind….

She possesses, among female writers, perhaps the strongest sense of fraternity with her own gender…. Mrs. Paley also has the knack, so prominent in her first story collection, The Little Disturbances of Man, of romanticizing even the weakness and unreliability of men….

Over and over, husbands fly the coop for reasons of their own, but the women do not hold a grudge. They acknowledge that men are magnetic, transient, slippery, and that women's lives are destined to be shot through with a chronic Sehnsucht for some ideal man who is not there. In a period when liberationists believe female happiness can be articulated in the form of pragmatic demands, this kindly fatalism alone would make the writer extraordinary….

Readers who take to Mrs. Paley's stories will … not do so for their "literary merit" (of which there is sufficient amount) but for her disposition, which is remarkable.

She is, first of all, generous in her estimate of everyone, beginning with her autobiographical heroine, who cherishes a clear and favorable image of herself. Mrs. Paley does not have it in her to practice a sullen art, and seems almost oddly unwilling to entertain an adverse moral judgment or a hostile response….

Mrs. Paley does not like to study sorrow. She can say, with one of her heroines, "I am better known for my hospitable remarks." If at times her general beneficence extends so warmly to herself that she becomes a pushover for her own charm, what could be more therapeutic in this age of self-deprecation?

Isa Kapp, "Husbands and Heroines," in New Leader, June 24, 1974, pp. 17-18.

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute is a selection of the work [Grace Paley] has done in the past fifteen years. Although her narrative voice has become somewhat more cryptic than it used to be, this second volume is essentially an extension of the first [The Little Disturbances of Man]; Mrs. Paley's imagination continues to be fired by "ordinary" people fixed in reduced and unremarkable circumstances, living lives sodden with small and unengaging woes, in whom, were it not for Mrs. Paley's literary labors, we might take no interest whatsoever. As her narrator grandiloquently remarks, the point is to "tell their stories as simply as possible, in order, you might say, to save a few lives."

Most of the stories in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute reflect Mrs. Paley's highly stylized conception of lower-class, immigrant, or second-generation "ethnic" New York. Plot and action are, to say the least, secondary; the author's concern is primarily with the social milieu, and with the immediate thoughts and feelings of the people she portrays….

By and large, the people in Mrs. Paley's fiction lead lives characterized by an almost surreal psychic isolation and a passivity bordering on despair. Despite statements like, "Everyone, real or imagined, deserves the open destiny of life," Mrs. Paley's "inventions" (as she herself calls her characters) are placed typically in bleak situations where their best hope is to survive, rather than to comprehend, let alone alter, the fate that has been meted out to them. Although there is little active or dramatic suffering, the threat of emotional violence is pervasive—engendered, perhaps, by the narrow horizons under which everyone in the book labors….

Even setting aside the portentous references to overtly political matters—"community action," the inadequacy of welfare stipends, the immorality of the Vietnam war—her stories are suffused with a set of narrow-minded attitudes and assumptions about the nature of experience in modern America that are borrowed wholesale from the communitarian/utopian ethos of the radical Left. Motherhood, the "plight" of women, the relationship between the sexes—virtually any human condition at all is relentlessly politicized in this setting, made to fit smoothly with the thesis of extreme victimization and polarization which is Mrs. Paley's representation of reality.

Such a reductive reading of life inevitably takes its literary toll. The stories have about them a self-conscious and mannered quality that mirrors their refusal to evoke any recognizable emotional or psychological reality. The dominant voice is the authorial one; narration and dialogue both are written in an idiosyncratic and elliptical language, making it seem as if, in addition to their other privations, Mrs. Paley's characters are without the means or the desire to understand anything about themselves or to communicate with one another in any but the most primitive and unrevealing fashion. The plotting in Enormous Changes ranges from the incredibly bad to the nonexistent, and the reader often gets the feeling that the author found herself in the middle of a story and then simply ran out of the imaginative energy necessary to complete it.

Mrs. Paley's sense of herself as friend to the friendless is endlessly reiterated in these pages, but the note that sounds most clearly is one of cynicism and condescension, if not of enmity. Her bloodless "vision" of the way things "really" are leads to the minimizing of everything and everybody in her fictional world. Any life would inevitably be larger, more variegated, and more substantial, the scope of its possibility far wider, than Grace Paley even begins to allow in her stories. It is as if what she had set out to do was not to "save a few lives" but rather to kill off any possibility of rendering them imaginatively. In this she has nearly succeeded.

Jane Larkin Crain, "'Ordinary' Lives" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1974 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, July, 1974, pp. 92-3.