Monday, May 5, 2014

Short Story Month 2014: Grace Paley

The first thing one notices about the short stories of Grace Paley is the voice that narrates them.  It seems unmistakably  the voice of a woman talking to other women.  Paley once said in an interview that it was "the dark lives of women" that made her begin to write in the first place, adding that at the time she thought no one would be interested, "but I had to illuminate it anyway."  In a preface written especially for The Collected Stories, she says that in 1954 or 1955, when she first felt the storyteller's need, she was not sure that she could write the important serious stuff that men were writing.  Consequently, she says she had no choice but to write about what had been handed to her:  "Everyday life, kitchen life, children life."

Usually, the women in Paley's stories are either unwed, widowed, or divorced; although they often have lovers and children, they are not defined either by marriage or the desire for marriage.  This focus on the female without men has resulted, say some critics, in stories that are feminist in point of view, language, and theme.  And in her new preface, Paley says she agrees, at least to the extent that every woman writing during the decades of the 50's, 60's, and 70's had to "swim in the feminist wave."  Paley's stories are often unified by her focus on the voices of women engaged in conversation, gossip, jokes, intimacies, and above all, storytelling. 

It is the power of this talk and storytelling, Paley insists, that bonds women together into a unified, collaborative force to make their voices heard.  In an interview, Paley once said, "Our voices are, if not getting a lot louder, getting so numerous.  We're talking to each other more and more."  Paley believes that women banding together and talking to one another, especially mothers, constitute a powerful political force for social change.  When you have kids, you get involved in community affairs, Paley says, for your concern is for protection of the children.  Indeed, in many Paley stories, the community of mothers on the playground constitute a central source of social consciousness.

Although Paley's stories show a concern for community and social responsibility, they are far from solemn social tracts or feminist polemics.  Instead, they are characterized by an earthy awareness of urban folk culture combined with an often bawdy sense of humor.  For example, the women in Paley's stories rebel against the traditional role of woman as passive partners in sexuality, and at the same time they reject the egoistic image of men as the answer to all woman's needs.  As Mrs. Luddy tells the character Faith Darwin in the story "The Long Distance Runner," men thought they were bringing women a "rare gift," but it was just sex, "which is common like bread, though essential."  As Faith and Mrs. Luddy talk, like many other women in Paley's stories, we begin to realize that such collaborative talk among women fosters community and freedom.

Faith Darwin, Paley's alter ego, was first introduced in a pair of early stories in The Little Disturbances of Man categorized as "Two Short Sad Stories from a Long and Happy Life."  The first one, entitled "The Used-Boy Raisers," begins with the typical Paley ironic voice--"There were two husbands disappointed by eggs"--and then continues with Faith's voice characterizing her husband and former husband, who are dissatisfied in the way she has fixed their eggs, as Pallid and Livid as they quarrel about the future of the Jewish race.  At this point in Faith's life, she rarely expresses her opinion on any serious matter and says she considers it her destiny to be, "until her expiration date, laughingly the servant of man."  But as the two husbands go off to face the "grand affairs of the day ahead of them," Faith's voice has managed to gently ridicule the pretensions of these "clean and neat, rather attractive, shiny men in their thirties."

In many ways, the various situations of Faith Darwin reflect the central thematic concerns of Paley's fiction.  As Faith moves from egoistic self pity to a broader identification and sympathy with women in general and women as an oppressed group in particular, she embodies Paley's own growing conviction that fiction can serve a powerful purpose in affirming community, hope, and love.  Faith reappears in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute in the story "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, she holds herself aloof from family in this story, rejecting union and connection. 

Another story, "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.  However, by the end of the story, she is brought out of her lofty perch by her eight-year-old son's sympathetic identification with the purposes of a peaceful antiwar march and decides to change her distanced perspective to one of social and artistic involvement.  In the final Faith Darwin story in Enormous Changes, "The Long-Distance Runner," Faith jogs to her childhood neighborhood on Cony 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 the black woman Mrs. Luddy who now lives there.

In "Friends," in Paley's third collection, Later the Same Day, Faith goes with her friends Ann and Susan to visit another friend Selena who is dying.  The story is a Paley experiment in creating a collective narrator; she has said in an interview that it is based on her own female friends with whom she had a kind of collective existence.  "Ruthy and Edie," also in Later the Same Day, begins with the relationship between two young girls who talk about the "real world of boys" and fight their fear of a strange neighborhood dog, then shifts to a period many years later at Ruthy's fiftieth birthday when she invites three friends, including Faith and Edie, to her apartment for a celebration.  The story ends with Ruth's anxiety about her success as a mother as she struggles with the hopelessness of protecting her granddaughter from the hard world of "man-made time." 

Faith appears again in "The Expensive Moment," in which the network of women, a frequent theme in Paley's stories, broadens to include a Chinese woman who Faith and Ruthy have met at a meeting of a women's governmental organization sponsored by the UN.  Over tea in Faith's kitchen, the three women wonder whether they were right to raise their children as they did.
A number of Paley's stories are so short that they seem carefully crafted situations symbolic of the circumstances of women.  For example, "Love" is an inconclusive episode in which a man tells his wife about his past loves, one of whom is a fictional character in her own book.  "Lavinia:  An Old Story" is a brief monologue in which a black woman tries to talk her daughter's suitor out of marrying her.  "At That Time, or The History of a Joke" is, in itself, little more than a joke in which the virgin birth becomes the source of several satiric jabs at the Christian religion.  The story "Anxiety" consists primarily of a woman's warnings to a young father taking his daughter home from school; "In This Country" is a two-page prose-poem in which a female child tries to understand whether her maiden aunt has a life of her own; and "Mother" is a two-page memoir brought on by a woman's hearing the song "Oh, I Long To See My Mother in the Doorway."  The two short pieces, "A Man Told Me the Story of His Life" and "This is a Story about My Friend George, the Toy Inventor," are more like brief parables than fully-developed narratives.  In one, we hear of a man who, unable to fulfill his dream to be a doctor, saves his wife's life because of his diagnostic ability; in the other, a man invents a pinball machine that is a poem of the machine, its essence made concrete.

"Wants"--a three-page piece in which a woman meets her ex-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 friend calls Faith to tell her she is dying, but Faith says 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 as she describes going to a playground where she meets eleven unwed mothers on relief who band together in a kind of playground.

When asked about these very short stories, which seem to challenge the limits of narrative structure, Paley said that a story is more often apt to be too long than too short, arguing 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."  And that, she says, can happen in two pages.

Grace Paley is very much concerned with the nature of storytelling in her stories, for her narrator is often self-consciously aware of the fact that the characters in the stories are fictional creations.  One of her most frequently anthologized stories, "A Conversation With My Father," is Paley's most explicit treatment of her view of story and its relationship to hope for the future of women.  The protagonist of the story, a writer, is visited by her eighty-year old dying father who wants her to write a Chekhov-type story for him, one with a plot, a concept she despises because, she says, it takes away all hope.  In order to please her father, she tells two versions of a story of a woman who becomes a junkie so she can remain close to her son, who has become a junkie.  Although the father sees the situation of the woman in the story-within-the-story as tragic, the narrator sees it as comic.  As a result, the story is, as many of Paley's stories, both tragic and comic at once.

What Paley rebels against in "A Conversation With My Father" is the inevitability of plot, which, because it moves toward a predestined end, is a straight line between two points.  A basic difference between fiction and "real life," Paley suggests is that whereas real life is open and full of possibility, fiction moves relentlessly toward its predetermined end.  A basic difference between the father's reaction to the woman in the story-within-the-story and the author's reaction is that whereas the father takes her situation seriously, as if she had a separate existence in the world, the author knows that the woman is her own creation; thus, although she feels sorry for her, she never loses sight of the fact that as the author she has the power to alter her destiny.

            The key words in the titles of several of the stories in Later the Same Day are "telling," "listening," "hearing," and "story," for the nature of narrative talk is central to all of them.  As a storyteller, Paley's central concern is the basic characteristics of story, specifically, the characteristics of oral narrative specifically associated with women.  In "Listening," at breakfast, Faith tells her husband Jack the two stories "Anxiety" and "Zagrosky Tells," stories which she neglected to tell him in the story "The Story Hearer."  Jack complains these are stories about men and urges her to tell him the stories told by women about women.  Although Faith says they are too private, many of Paley's stories are indeed about the very private talk between women.

            Paley's concern with the nature of story moves many of her narratives into the realm of self-reflexive fiction or metafiction, for they are about reality as a language construct.  Although her stories lack the kind of tight intentional patterning of the well-made short story since Poe, they are not "realistic" in the usual "slice-of-life" sense. Paley is too self-conscious a writer to be content with straightforward mimetic treatments of real people in the real world.  As a result of her refusal to build her stories around a clear conflict and thus move them toward am emphatic sense of resolution and closure, a number of critics have often been puzzled about how to discuss her stories about women.

            Paley's very brief stories have also been the source of many critical reservations, for they are so short and seemingly inconsequential that they seem to challenge the lower limits of storyness.  Paley has sometimes been classified among those contemporary short story writers known as "minimalists," although her minimalism has been more accepted than that of Ann Beattie, Mona Simpson, Amy Hempel, and Mary Robison because of her subject matter focus on the urban Jewish community and the community of women.  In spite of the politically correct nature of her characters, she has been criticized for self-indulgently engaging in meaningless memoirs and desultory dialogues that, although they contain socially significant ideas, are not really stories at all.

            However, this is the same kind of criticism that once was lodged against Anton Chekhov, the originator of the tradition of short-story "realism" to which Paley belongs.  Although her stories seem like mere slices of life without intentional pattern, they are actually quite carefully crafted narratives in which simple objective description takes on symbolic meaning by a careful structure of repetition and interconnection of motifs.  Paley believes that stories should be "like life," at least the  way life should be--that is, open-ended, full of hope, promise, and possibility.  Stories should not be governed by the inevitability of plot, particularly plot determined by the goal-directed nature of male culture.  If life is like a story, then Paley insists that we should all be story tellers, each writing his or her own stories and forming communities of stories with others.

Writing for Grace Paley is a collaborative, social act, not merely in the obvious sense of centering stories on social issues, but in the more complex and profound sense of writing as the creation of a community of speakers and listeners sharing the same values.  Not content to remain the prisoner of a language system based on the dominant male culture, Grace Paley has devoted her art to the creation of a language-based community made up of talk by women to women.

1 comment:

Just Kat Typing said...

This is a very insightful and helpful article for anyone who appreciates or wants to better understand the work of Grace Paley.