Later the Same Day
Grace Paley’s output is small—three books of short stories in twenty-five years—but even at a time when markets for short fiction are limited and the literary stars are novelists and poets, her reputation has grown steadily. Paley’s work is particularly savored by writers and teachers of writing. This new collection, like The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), displays the apparently effortless simplicity and clarity of her work.
As in any craft, the appearance of natural ease in storytelling requires not only great skill but also respect for both the medium and the material. Fiction’s material is human life. Paley’s characters command attention as distinct individuals from the moment of their first appearance, a feat that she manages even in the absence of introductory comments or descriptions of their work, background, or physical appearance. In similar fashion, Paley can provide a sense of resolution and meaning without shaping tidy plots or constructing scenes that put opposing values in conflict. Her distinctive viewpoint includes the wider world as an important element in the context of daily life and thus makes her work impressively humane, responsible, and—ultimately—hopeful about the human condition.
One secret of Paley’s craft is her seeming absence of craft. She ignores both Edgar Allan Poe’s prescriptive definition and the structural rules promoted when short fiction was a commercial staple; she neither strives for a single emotional effect nor builds plots that reveal characters at carefully limited moments of significant conflict, change, or revelation. It would be difficult to chart one of Paley’s stories so as to discover the exposition, point of attack, rising action, and climax. Paley shows people in the process of living and convinces readers that she has accurately rendered their experience; and at the same time, she successfully manages to avoid the ambiguous, unfinished, and often unsettling quality of the fiction once referred to as “slice of life.”
The absence of crisis and conflict throws the emphasis on character; the reader’s impatience with open endings is dissipated because the characters satisfy. They behave understandably—and like most people, are unlikely to be dramatically altered by one single event, though their interests, and also their feelings and responses, are likely to change over the years as circumstances change. Though Paley does not quite write linked stories that can be put together into something approaching a novel, many characters from her earlier collections reappear. The young women who were rearing preschoolers alone in the 1960’s are now coping with their parents’ old age, a friend’s death from cancer, the end of childbearing years, and the loosening bonds of motherhood.
Most of the stories are set in a world as distinctive as any local colorist’s Kentucky or Maine or Mississippi. It seems less limited primarily because residents of college towns across the country are citizens—either in spirit or in exile—of Paley’s small square of New York. There, rehabilitated tenements and surprising patches of green create a walking neighborhood with its own school and greengrocer and butcher and deli and well-known faces; where the church is important primarily as a building whose basement holds a meeting room and a mimeograph machine that can be used to promote peace, ecology, and neighborhood causes.
Though there is a certain amount of parochialism in its specifics, the world of Paley’s stories is impressive because its people are engaged by a range of concerns. Love and affection and friendship are important in their daily lives, but so are China, the educational bureaucracy that refuses to let parent volunteers tutor Spanish-speaking children, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), the PTA, Union Carbide, and a grandmother’s recollections of Russia in 1905. Her characters are adults, with a long perspective not only in their own maturity but also in memories across the cycle of years; their energies may shift focus and their friendships be interrupted by political differences, but they are part of an enmeshed continuity.
Although most of the stories in the volume are told by or about Faith—the character that many readers assume is a fictionalized version of Grace Paley herself—some reach into other lives. “Lavinia: An Old Story” convincingly creates the mingled hope, joy, and anger of...
(The entire section is 1848 words.)