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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism
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The Miniaturist Art of Grace Paley

by Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published in The London Review of Books, April 16, 1998, and reprinted in Where I've Been, And Where I'm Going.

 

How aptly named: Grace Paley. For "grace" is perhaps the most accurate, if somewhat poetic, term to employ in speaking of this gifted writer who has concentrated on short, spare fiction through her career of nearly five decades. First published in 1959 with the slender volume The Little Disturbances of Man, Grace Paley immediately drew an audience of readers who were not only admiring but loving. Her subsequent collections of stories—Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985)—confirmed Paley's reputation as a lyricist of the domestic life, a poet in prose whose ear for the Jewish-American vernacular suggests a kinship with her older contemporaries Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, and Saul Bellow.

Like Flannery O'Connor, another American original who came of age in the 1950s, Grace Paley has concentrated upon short fiction, and her major work is assembled in a single, not extraordinarily hefty volume. (Paley began writing as a poet, but published no volume of poetry until Begin Again, 1993. Her miscellaneous essays, articles, reports, and public addresses have been collected in Just As I Thought, 1998.) Paley's reasons for not attempting longer, more ambitious and technically challenging forms of fiction include a defense of political activism: "Art is too long, and life is too short. There's a lot more to do in life than just writing." How much more there has been in Grace Paley's life, touched upon briefly, and often elliptically, in such stories as "Faith in a Tree," "The Expensive Moment," and "Listening," is suggested by Paley's self-portrait as a "member of an American movement, a tide really, that rose out of the civil-rights struggles of the fifties, rolling methods and energy into the antiwar, direct-action movements in the sixties, cresting, ebbing as tides do, returning bold again in the seventies and eighties in the second wave of the women's movement—and from quite early on splashed and salted by ecological education, connection, and at last action." (Just As I Thought)

Born in New York City in 1922, of Russian-Jewish immigrants who settled in the poor quarter of the Lower East Side, Paley emerged from the densely populated, fiercely individualistic Yiddish culture of which Anzia Yezierska (1885-1970) and Henry Roth (1906-1997) wrote in the 1920s and 1930s in such acclaimed novels as Bread Givers and Call It Sleep respectively; this vanished world of "heroic" elders Paley explores only by way of her father, who appears in her short fiction as an elderly gentleman of melancholy wisdom and much experience, unable to share in his writer-daughter's optimism. ("Tragedy!" cries the eighty-six-year-old invalid in "A Conversation with My Father." "When will you look it in the face?")

As the early stories record in vivid, attenuated detail, Paley married young, had her children young, and did not exactly enjoy a luxurious life while raising them in the 1940s. Though she would one day teach writing at Columbia, Syracuse, and Sarah Lawrence, she had little formal education. In the mid-1950s Paley became a political activist of more than ordinary idealism and commitment, rare for any American writer: She helped organize one of the first abortion "speak-outs" in the United States, in 1954; she helped found the Greenwich Village Peace Center, in 1961, and the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, in 1965-66; she was an early, and ardent, pacifist, and a protester of American military involvement in Vietnam; she was one of a small number of Americans invited to visit Hanoi, in 1969; she was an early member of Resist, an organization formed to aid grass-roots American organizations for ameliorative social change. In the 1970s, she helped demonstrate against the construction of nuclear power plants, and in the mid-1980s, she was involved in the support of Central American people in their struggle to free themselves of decades of American military intervention. It's no wonder that Grace Paley's fictional alter ego is named "Faith" and that she transcribes one of the dramatic turning points of her life in the story "Faith in a Tree," in the appropriately titled Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, the jolt into political wakefulness the young mother Faith experiences when she's confronted for the first time, graphically and unforgettably, by antiwar demonstrators in a neighborhood playground-park:

A short parade appeared—four or five grownups ... pushing little go-carts with babies in them, a couple of three-year-olds hanging on .... The grownups carried three posters. The first showed a prime-living, prime-earning, well-dressed man about thirty-five years old next to a small girl. A question was asked: would you burn a child? In the next poster he placed a burning cigarette on the child's arm. The cool answer was given: WHEN NECESSARY. The third poster carried no words, only a napalmed Vietnamese baby, seared, scarred, with twisted hands.
We were very quiet. Kitty put her head down into the dark skirt of her lap. I trembled. I said, Oh!

(Significantly, this story occurs at about mid-point in The Collected Stories.) Into Faith's droll, child-centered world of small neighborhood adventures contemporary political history intrudes, ugly, stirring, in personal terms cataclysmic. There is a "before" and "after" in Faith's life, as in Paley's short fiction.

And I think that is exactly when events turned me around, changing my hairdo, my job uptown, my style of living and telling. Then I met women and men in different lines of work, whose minds were made up and directed out of that sexy playground by my children's heartfelt brains. I thought more and more and every day about the world.

"Faith in a Tree" is a powerful story, yet in its blunt conclusion, which suggests rather more the directness of memoir than the indirection of fiction, it isn't characteristic of Paley's best work. To allude to "grace" in terms of prose is to suggest some of the strategies of poetry—primarily, in Paley's case, metonymy: the art of suggestion and association. Paley's quick sketches of seemingly ordinary domestic daily life—erotic, tenderly combative, irresolute—suggest the delicate, notoriously difficult art of watercolor. Her language is musical, pulsed to the rhythms of speech as heard by the ear, and not speech invented as prose, as subtly and beautifully cadenced as that of Bernard Malamud in his early, magical stories of urban Jewish lives. Like good poetry, a characteristic short story by Grace Paley can't be paraphrased. It is invariably more than the sum of its inspired moments, leaving in its wake an aura, an echo; this is prose meant to be read aloud, as an expression of "voice," not a resolution of plot. Paley's characterizations are by way of monologues we hear, not individuals we see. (We "see" virtually no one in these hundreds of pages of prose, have little idea what Faith looks like, unless we assume she bears some resemblance to the author, pictured on the dust jacket. It may come as a jolt to the reader to hear Faith addressed, in "The Long Distance Runner," as "fat mama" by an impudent adolescent boy.)

The first story in the volume, "Goodbye and Good Luck," begins, "I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose": the monologue of an aging woman reminiscing fondly about her youth and the love of her life, a not-always-faithful actor in the Yiddish theater; it's a tale as well of "the rotten handwriting of time, scribbled up and down [my mother's] cheeks, across her forehead back and forth—a child could read." This is a story we expect will careen to a predictable mordant ending; in fact, it has an unexpectedly blissful happy ending. In the beautifully condensed "The Pale Pink Roast," a man encounters his ex-wife, mother of his child, in a city park, returns with her to a new, attractive home, where, suddenly, they find themselves drawn powerfully to each other, though Anna is happily remarried:

"Shall we dance?" he asked softly, a family joke. With great care, a patient lover, he undid the sixteen tiny buttons of her pretty dress and in Judy's room on Judy's bed he took her at once without a word. Afterward, having established tenancy, he rewarded her with kisses. But he dressed quickly because he was obligated by the stories of his life to remind her of transience.

It is the ex-wife, Anna, who thinks cryptically: "... Cannibals, tasting man, saw him thereafter as the great pig, the pale pink roast."

"Another irresistibly readable story of the 1950s is the much anthologized "An Interest in Life," which was my personal introduction to Paley's miniaturist art. It begins,

My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn't right. No one can tell me it was meant kindly.
"I don't want you not to have anything for Christmas while I'm in the army," he said ....
Still and all, in spite of the quality, it was a mean present to give a woman you planned on never seeing again, a person you had children with and got onto all the time, drunk or sober, even when everybody had to get up early in the morning.
I asked him if he could wait and join the army in a half hour, as I had to get the groceries.

Virginia, the abandoned young wife and mother, acquires another, far more reliable, sensitive, and loving suitor after her callow husband's desertion; but the story ends in an unexpected erotic fantasy in which the husband returns years later ("with his old key") and bumps the amazed Virginia onto the kitchen floor:

And before I can even make myself half comfortable on that polka-dotted linoleum, he got onto me right where we were, and the truth is, we were so happy, we forgot the precautions.

In "Wants," the opening story of Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, an unnamed woman who sounds very like Virginia says,

I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.
Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-
seven years, so I felt justified.
He said, What? What life? No life of mine. I said O.K. ...

Just as Grace Paley the pacifist and political activist is never polemical, preachy, or self-righteous in her fiction, so Grace Paley the feminist is unpredictable; an artist, and not a propagandist.

Of course, the predominant concerns of The Colleeted Stories are with women's issues. Virtually all of the stories are narrated from a woman's perspective, and men (and occasionally boys) are The Other: raffish, charming, verbose, irresponsible, and often absent. In her brief introduction to this volume, Paley defines herself as a woman writing at the historical moment at mid-century when "small drops of worried resentment and noble rage were secretly, slowly building into the second wave of the women's movement," but readers will discover that these emotions have been subsumed by an easygoing, forgiving, and humane sensibility in which foolish or self-serving behavior is observed with comic detachment, not savage indignation. What is refreshingly original about Grace Paley, apart from her gossamer way with words, is her disinclination to be judgmental; her refusal not to be funny, even at her own expense. Her female characters are founts of mock-sexist sagacity:

Happiness isn't so bad for a woman. She gets fatter, she gets older, she could lie down, nuzzling a regiment of men and little kids, she could just die of the pleasure. But men are different, they have to own money, or they have to be famous, or everybody on the block has to look up at them from the cellar stairs. A woman counts her children and acts snotty, like she invented life, but men must do well in the world. I know that men are not fooled by being happy.
("An Interest in Life")

Little boys need a recollection of Energy as a male resource.
("Faith in a Tree")

... Do you notice that in time you love the children more and the man less?
("The Expensive Moment")

Children standing on the sidelines listening to Faith and her garrulous friends are likely to startle us with their commentary:

What is this crap, Mother, this life is short and terrible. What is this metaphysical shit, what is this disease you intelligentsia are always talking about?
("Listening")

Grace Paley came of age at a time when literary irony, of the kind practiced by the virtuoso Vladimir Nabokov, was a high, prestigious value. Who but a woman, and among serious women writers who but Grace Paley, would write such unabashedly frank, emotional yet unsentimental stories about women's friendships and love, as "Friends" and "Ruthy and Edie"? Through the 1950s and 1960s, tessellated, self-conscious prose, symbolism and "experimentation" were in vogue, as well as the fey, relentlessly parodistic short fiction of Paley's neighbor and good friend Donald Barthelme. The gargantuan mock-epics of John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) and Giles Goat-Boy (1966), now little read, were much praised at the time, and the "literature of exhaustion" was the literature of the future—if there was a future for humanist literature at all. Like a number of realist writers, however, Grace Paley continued to practice and to hone her less showy craft, focusing not upon technique but upon characters with the affect of "real people"; her stories evolved over the decades in terms of subject matter, settings, and form, but her vision of humanity remained unaltered, like her inimitable style, which would seem to have been perfected in the first stories she published. Paley's New Yorkers are the "soft-speaking tough souls of anarchy" who outlive literary fads and fashions and whose stories are as timely at the end of the tumultuous twentieth century as they would have been at the beginning.

In the poignant father-daughter story "A Conversation with My Father," the invalided father asks the narrator to please write a "simple story" of the kind Maupassant and Chekhov wrote—"Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next"; he's annoyed and confused by disjointed plots that seem to lead nowhere, people in trees "talking senselessly, voices from who knows where .... " And his daughter thinks:

I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: "There was a woman ... " followed by a plot, the absolute line between two points which I've always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.

It's this "open destiny" of life and of art that Grace Paley's Collected Stories celebrates and that has made of Paley one of the enduring talents of her epoch.