Form and Content
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, which contains seventeen stories that originally appeared in The Atlantic, Esquire, and other magazines, is the second of Grace Paley’s highly regarded collections of stories. The Little Disturbances of Man, with eleven stories, appeared in 1959, and her third collection, Later the Same Day, containing seventeen stories, appeared in 1985. It is not a large corpus, and it has not generated extensive formal commentary and criticism. Yet it is a body of work loved and respected by many readers, especially women, who hear in Paley a familiar and long-silent voice, and other writers, who know that she is a consummate master of her craft who constantly experiments with the basic nature of narrative structure.
A number of stories in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute are so short that they seem carefully crafted situations symbolic of the circumstances of women. “Wants,” a three-page piece in which a woman meets her former husband at the library when she returns books she has had checked out for eight years, effectively expresses a woman’s basic desire to be the kind of person who returns books in two weeks, stays married to the same person forever, and addresses the Board of Estimate on the troubles of urban centers. In “Living,” a woman calls a friend to tell her she is dying. Yet the friend, a character named Faith who plays a role in a number of Paley stories, says that she is dying too, for her menstrual bleeding will not stop; the story is a poignant but restrained exemplum of female sympathy and identification. “Northeast Playground,” another three-page story, deals with a typical Paley social concern: She describes going to a playground where she meets eleven unwed mothers on relief who band together in a kind of playground ghettoization.
When asked about these very short stories, which seem to challenge the limits of narrative structure, Paley has said that a story is more often likely to be too long than too short. She argues that stories should deal with more than the simple dialectic of conflict. “I think it’s two events or two characters . . . bumping against each other, and what you hear, that’s the story.” That, she says, can happen in two pages.
Three of the longer stories in the collection focus on Paley’s central character Faith Darwin. Originally introduced in The Little Disturbances of Man in the story “The Used-Boy Raisers,” Faith reappears in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute in “Faith in the Afternoon,” where, recently abandoned by her husband, she visits her parents in a retirement home. Although she is very much aware of her family history, Faith holds herself aloof from family in this story; egotistical and self-pitying, she rejects union and connection. “Faith in a Tree” finds Faith still holding herself aloof, this time symbolically sitting on the limb of a sycamore tree above an urban playground. By the end of the story, however, she is brought down from her lofty perch by her eight-year-old son’s sympathetic identification with the purposes of a peaceful antiwar march. In response, Faith decides to change her distanced perspective to one of social and artistic involvement. In the final Faith Darwin story in this volume, “The Long-Distance Runner,” Faith decides to jog to her childhood neighborhood on Coney Island. Finding the area now populated by African Americans, she retreats to her old home place and stays for three weeks, uniting both with her past and with Mrs. Luddy, the African American woman who now lives there.
In many ways, the various situations of Faith Darwin reflect the central thematic concerns of Paley’s fiction. As Faith moves from egotistical self-pity to a broader identification and sympathy with other women, she embodies Paley’s own growing conviction that fiction can serve a powerful purpose in affirming community, hope, and love.
A central question often raised about Paley’s stories is whether they support the...
(The entire section is 1,487 words.)