Grace Paley Essay - Paley, Grace (Vol. 6)

Paley, Grace (Vol. 6)

Paley, Grace 1922–

Ms Paley, an American, is an enormously talented short story writer and poet. Her most recent collection of stories is Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

[Enormous Changes at the Last Minute] is somewhat broader in range and more removed from the immigrant background that animated [Grace Paley's] first book, The Little Disturbances of Man, and the consequent world picture is more American and less parochial…. The range of character is remarkably wide, with personalities emerging from various classes, ages and ethnic groups to shape and color the episodes. But the dominant quality which marked the first book—its insistent realism—has not been altered, and the developments and changes in Grace Paley's art have to do with subjects and themes, rather than with the basic techniques of writing.

Frequently, there is no conventional sense of action, and many of the stories are situations or incidents rather than fully drawn events. But their ability to be moving does not depend upon their subject, nor upon appeals to the imagination or fantasy or any other devices that lie outside the realm of the purely technical. Instead, Grace Paley uses language to reproduce the realities of life in short passages that are generally sufficient to recognize, if not recall, a moment or a gesture, and at times an entire personality or environment.

No less important, of course, is what she does not say. There is a terseness to her writing that has the effect of a pressure cooker whose lid is always threatening to blow off…. This is the pattern of all the stories: the inter-connection of the trivial and the ultimate, the profane and the holy, the jumbled molecules of her universe—library books, what's for breakfast, the children's toys—together with the larger concerns of life, especially love and death.

We are so accustomed to responding to fiction in terms of its themes and characters that we must reawaken our linguistic sensitivities when reading Grace Paley. The qualities and substances that give strength to most of our good writers are quite alien from her work. The story, as such, is of so little importance to her that the demands of plot appear as something of an afterthought. The crucial aspect of her work is not the tale but the telling, although it must hastily be pointed out that she does not go to extremes charted by some of her avant-garde colleagues. She never permits the language to write its own story, or to turn from her and take over by itself. Her verbal gifts, which are considerable, are tightly controlled and are used in the service of the stories themselves.

Her language is uniquely her own: unelaborate, punchy, tense and energetic, and it is well-suited to the city folk she writes about, their squabbles, their gossip, their ethnic affiliations and their passions. The blood and bones of her characters are described in a series of simple statements of fact, punctuated here and there by a more extended image…. [She has] a deliberate and cautious voice. At the same time, the voice has the capacity for freedom and openness, and at times it can be wildly unpredictable without risking the loss of its essential credibility. It has the power to animate the people in the stories, who are accordingly lively, resilient and eager to perform their assigned roles.

So good is she at what she does that one is tempted to assign to her a greatness she neither seeks nor achieves. Her very technique has established its own inherent limitations, and the advantages of the journalistically influenced writer are at least partially offset by the limitations of journalism itself: a restraint on the imagination, a boundary on how much can be conveyed that is not an integral part of the fiction and a limit on how much can be risked for noble aims. But these are luxuries available to only a very few, and the ability to tell a vivid and precise story is cause for celebration.

All of which may help to explain why she is so popular as a teacher of writing, and why her work is referred to so often in writing workshops. She is, finally, a writer's writer. Without resorting to the common gimmicks of her trade, she focuses her talent and energy on the craft itself and creates straightforward and solid constructions. As a writer, she observes the classic rules: she writes what she knows, she does not attempt too much, she shies away from any hint of cliché and tells a simple and honest story, even at the risk of letting the seams of the construction remain visible. There is one more thing which exerts an undeniable appeal on other writers who read her work—the hint of a moral imperative. For, while she never deals explicitly with moral questions, they are seething under the surface. There is, in fact, a moral basis to her entire enterprise. Writing, as one of her characters remarks, is something that you owe to your family and your friends: "That is, to tell their stories as simply as possible, in order, you might say, to save a few lives." (pp. 459-60)

William Novak, "The Uses of Fiction: To Reveal and to Heal," in America (© America Press, 1974; all rights reserved), June 8, 1974, pp. 459-60

How to describe this unique and wonderful writer without sounding fulsome or resorting to clichés?… [If] I had the vote … I would nominate Enormous Changes for whatever fiction honors this country can bestow, along with a gold medal for its author.

Grace Paley writes short stories about people falling apart or occasionally pulling themselves together in the Bronx or thereabouts, and I used to think she was Jewish because most of her stories are written in a nervous patois that I think sounds like Yiddish-American, but there is a father character in some of these stories who Miss Paley says in a prefatory note is her only "imagined" character and "no matter what story he has to live in, he's my father." This character sounds as much Irish as anything else, and come to think of it, Grace Paley looks Irish.

Whatever her ethnic background, Grace Paley's voice, her style, her view of the world are uniquely hers and hers alone. A Paley story could not be taken for someone else's, any more than Hemingway's or Faulkner's or Sherwood Anderson's or Joyce's could be mistaken for someone else's; this is something to be cherished in the so-often imitative and conforming world of large-circulation periodical fiction.

It's frequently a harsh and strident voice. (pp. 721-22)

Yet there is considerable emotional range in these brief, seemingly artless stories: from the stark hideousness of "The Little Girl," a bitter portrayal of a fourteen-year-old runaway who kills herself after being sexually vandalized, to the mellow "The Long-Distance Runner," in which a very Paleyesque fortyish woman returns to the building in which she'd been raised, now in a black ghetto, and spends a couple of weeks with a black mother and her child, or "A Conversation with My Father," just about the best story about writing a story that I've ever read. And always humor and compassion and a kind of dogged buoyancy exist in the face of Grace Paley's harsh realities. (pp. 722-23)

William Peden, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Fall, 1974.

Grace Paley's early work was greeted with remarkable critical acclaim—particularly remarkable in that the object of the acclaim [The Little Disturbances of Man] was not a novel. Perhaps nowhere but in the United States would a book of short stories receive such attention. Even the great Russians were mentioned by one critic. (p. 65)

[In her early work] Grace Paley's voice sounded like that of a young person sorely tried by experience, a wryly sagacious, long-suffering innocent, a sort of remote urban female descendant of Huck Finn, or younger New York sister of Augie March. She shared the same casual attitude to plot as Huck's creator who, it will be remembered, gave notice that "persons attempting to find a plot … will be shot." This indifference to considerations of plot has become even more marked in her latest volume [Enormous Changes at the Last Minute].

Moreover, she made no bones about female sexuality, and wrote about sex-crazy little girls or neglected, unsatisfied women, well before the advent of the bra-burning brigade, and unlike so many of its members she has revealed no compensatory interest in Lesbos. Thus her field tends to be what Samuel Richardson once called "Paphian stimulus" in women, although since the days when he could devote four volumes to the fate of a virgin, "the bottom has fallen out of the virgin as moral counterweight" (to quote the humorous phrase of Eddie Teitelbaum, one of Grace Paley's shrewd, overreaching adolescents, who comes to grief). The trouble is that since 1959 women writers (and others) have been exploring female sexuality to the point of nausea, so that Grace Paley now finds herself well behind the fashionable and outrageous front runners in the field. (pp. 65-6)

Several of the stories in [Enormous Changes at the Last Minute] look underpowered; they present a whimsical mood, or quizzical wisps of an idea or situation which is not always fully rounded and developed. Yet they can scarcely be regarded as long prose poems. They appear rather as imaginative elaborations of notes from a social worker's experience concerning unmarried mothers on relief, junkies, the rape or death of children. (p. 66)

Renee Winegarten, "Paley's Comet," in Midstream (© 1974 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), December, 1974, pp. 65-7.

Grace Paley says she writes stories because art is too long and life too short, which is probably why her tales of woe [in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute] are very short and written within an inch of their lives…. The words tuned and fitted, every sentence carrying its exactly contrived weight of irony or surprise—when you write that way, art is long indeed, and a short story is an immense journey. It's all New York—"wherever you turn someone is shouting give me liberty or I give you death"—and mostly Jewish—"Her grandmother pretended she was German in just the same way that Faith pretends she is an American." Despite her title, there are no enormous changes at the last minute, or at any time, for Paley's characters. They move with inexorable lostness toward the grave: "Faith's grandfather soon departed alone in blue pajamas, for death"; "at that moment, listening to him talk, she could see straight ahead over the thick hot rod of love to solitary age and lonesome death." There's even a "Conversation with My Father" in which Paley is told she cannot tell a plain story, and when she tries to write like Maupassant she fails, because while the lives she describes are indeed plain and grim, her telling is insistently unplain, and the effect is to make one remember sentences—their place in a paragraph, even, or on the page—rather than the lives of the people. The individual tales meld and blur into each other, because Paley works too hard, I think, at the wrong things. But she is good, no question, careful, aggressive, confident, in pain. (pp. 629-30)

Roger Sale, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Winter, 1974–75.

In her first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man, Grace Paley included a story of a young Jewish girl who is chosen to narrate the school Christmas play because her voice is so loud. That voice is still impressive and it rings through every page of this second book, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. However, anyone listening for the sounds of The New Woman should be warned: this voice comes not from the executive suite or the lectern, but from the kitchen, the playground, the bedroom. The women here depicted are smart, clever, strong, responsible, capable—and in bondage to love and sex, daughterhood and motherhood. Paley's women are defined by these chains, struggle against them not to escape them but to make them more comfortable. (p. 34)

Men are irresistible and—with few exceptions … irresponsible. They move in and out of these pages, there to eat the home-cooking, there to make love, to make pretentious remarks and jokes and quarrels, but not there long enough to pay the bills or discipline the children. At once exploitative and vulnerable, these men are sustained and improved, at their convenience, of course, by doses of the female reality principle. This principle declares that things are not that bad, not that good: comply, resent, accept.

What makes all this bearable, interesting, even compelling is that loud voice, narrating everything. Few writers can claim a more distinctive tone. Paley's accents are earthy, humorous, ironic, direct, candid. Also, hardly a sentence lacks some rich, fresh observation, or an image that is startling yet exact…. Occasionally Paley overreaches … [but] her prose usually wins the bets it makes.

It has to be admitted that Paley's range is narrow. The stories without the middle-aged, middle-class city women seem contrived, written to make a point or based on a neat twist. One Paley narrator says, "A woman inside the steamy energy of middle age runs and runs." And running, talks, and tells its own stories wonderfully well. (pp. 34-5)

Nancy H. Packard, in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1975 by Newberry College), Winter, 1975.

It is Miss Paley's rare talent to draw laughter from a reader who believes he is simultaneously in the presence of human pain. The first story in [Enormous Changes at the Last Minute] hits almost as hard as that familiar Dorothy Parker Telephone Call which must have made its own sad contribution to saving many a woman's sanity…. Other stories deal coolly with the horrors of the New York she is so much part of; old women gloating over the disasters of their friends' children; the violence all around. (p. 216)

Elaine Feinstein, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 14, 1975.

Everything which Grace Paley writes, in her bland and dead-pan way, depends upon the particular tone of voice which she adopts—whether it be pleading, cajoling, whining. There is a great deal of all three in her latest book, Enormous Changes At The Last Minute, since Miss Paley has turned her ear toward the more ethnic sections of what used to be known as the American experience…. As you might have guessed, these are all relatively gloomy themes but Grace Paley prevents them from becoming mawkish with her direct and sometimes wilfully naive prose. Surprisingly, it works. The various Irish, Jewish, Puerto-Rican and Negro voices are well and living from moment to moment: "Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life." And life does rear its head throughout this [collection], with its steady light searching even the dustiest and dirtiest corners. (p. 215)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), February 22, 1975.

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute is not, as advertised by some reviewers, inferior to The Little Disturbances of Man. It is a different book by the same author (who, changed by life and time, is also a little different here), a continuation of the other, a further exploration. Where Grace Paley's first book, for all its originality and surprise, is a collection of by and large traditionally made stories, the second is made up of a number of seeming fragments, an indication not of haste ("art is too long and life is too short," the author modestly tells us), but of a distillation of materials, a more daring openness of form. Paley's titles, The Little Disturbances of Man (emphasis mine) and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, playing off the first, refer to size in an exaggerated, essentially ironic way. The author's characterization of what she's about, an occasion for the literal-minded to complain she has not given us the major (meaning large) work we've been led to expect, is a little like Cordelia's representation of her love to her father. Paley is often at her best in Enormous Changes—her fiction at its most consequential—in the smallest space.

In Enormous Changes, as in the first collection, Paley writes about families, about lost and found love, about divorce, death, ongoing life—the most risky and important themes—in a style in which words count for much, sometimes for almost all. The stories—in some cases, the same stories—deal on the one hand with their own invention and, on the other, profoundly (and comically) with felt experience. In this sense, and in a wholly unschematic way, Paley combines what has been called the "tradition of new fiction" in America with the abiding concerns of the old.

Grace Paley's stories resist the intrusion of critical language about them, make it seem, no matter what, irrelevant and excessive. The stories are hard to write about because what they translate into has little relation, less than most explication, to what they are: themselves, transformed events of the imagination. The voice of Paley's fiction—quirky, tough, wise-ass, vulnerable, bruised into wisdom by the knocks of experience—is the triumph and defining characteristic of her art.

"An Interest in Life," probably the best piece in The Little Disturbances of Man, and one of the best American stories of the past twenty-five years, illustrates Paley's mode…. The matter-of-fact, ironic voice of the protagonist, Ginny, distances the reader from the conventions of her pathos, makes light of easy sentiment, only to bring us, unburdened by melodrama, to an awareness of the character as if someone known to us intimately for a long time. Ginny, in a desperate moment, writes out a list of her troubles to get on the radio show, "Strike it Rich." When she shows the list to John Raftery, a returned former suitor unhappily married to someone else, he points out to her that her troubles are insufficient, merely "the little disturbances of man." Paley's comic stories deal in exaggerated understatement, disguise their considerable ambition in the modesty of wit. (pp. 303-04)

An improvisatory casualness is another of the disguises of Paley's fiction. A high degree of technical sophistication is its true condition. Paley's stories rarely insist on their own achievement, deny their own audacity, her craft to cover its own traces. To say that Paley is knowing as a writer is not to imply that her work relies in any way, obvious or subtle, on formula. Each of Paley's stories is a separate discovery, as if she begins again each time out to learn what it is to make a story. (p. 304)

Paley is a major writer working in what passes in our time as a minor form. Her short fiction has continually deceived media, that system of mirrors that tends to discover the very things it advertises to itself, into taking it for less than it is. "A Conversation with My Father," my favorite of the second collection, concerns itself in part with the making of fiction. The narrator's father asks her why she doesn't write simple stories like de Maupassant or Chekhov. "Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next." To please her father, to prove the task hopeless, she offers him (and us) in abbreviated form a plain story, a self-fulfilling failure since the narrator holds that "Everyone, real or imagined, deserves the open destiny of life." The father complains that she leaves everything out, and Paley's narrator invents another, more elaborate version of the same story. The longer version is no closer to the kind of story the father wants, and he berates her for making jokes out of "Tragedy." "A Conversation with My Father" is by implication a self-criticism, a limiting and defining of mode, yet, symptomatic of Paley's best work, it illustrates by example the large and complex seriousness she affects (as if placating the gods) to deny herself. (pp. 305-06)

Jonathan Baumbach, "Life-Size," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1975 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLII, No. 2, 1975, pp. 303-06.