Enormous Changes in Very Small Spaces

Grace Paley’s greatness.

Grace Paley

Grace Paley, the great American short-story writer, who died Aug. 22 at the age of 84, was a very small woman—perhaps 5-2—with a halo of wispy white hair, whose voice had the unmistakable inflection of the Jewish Bronx of her youth. Surrounded by admirers, many of them 40 or 50 or 60 years her junior, she sometimes appeared a beloved, cranky, wisecracking bubbe, imparting bits of wisdom and wistful memories of a colorful life—Greenwich Village in the ‘50s, Vietnam, the women’s movement. For younger women writers, in particular, Paley was a kind of guardian saint, a cold-eyed veteran of a more difficult era. “I had been sold pretty early on the idea that I might not be writing the important serious stuff,” she wrote, with characteristically barbed irony, of the time when she began working on her first stories. “As a grown-up woman, I had no choice. Everyday life, kitchen life, children life, had been handed to me, my portion.”

Paley once cheerfully admitted she found it impossible to imagine the lives of “the corporate ruling bosses of our economy,” and indeed, her work is willfully nearsighted—deliberately (in some ways deceptively) small. At times, it feels almost utopian, as if the author believed the world’s troubles could be solved by an all-night argument in an apartment on 11th Street. It is also some of the strangest, thorniest, most challenging and exasperating American fiction written in the last half-century. Like Philip Guston’s paintings or Patti Smith’s songs, her stories are an acquired taste—sometimes easier to appreciate than to enjoy. But it’s a taste worth acquiring.

Chekhov famously told a younger writer that he should take the notebook in which he’d written a story, tear it in half, and begin with the second half. Paley takes that advice to almost unheard-of extremes. Her stories often begin in midconversation, or even midthought; they make no allowance for the reader’s uncertainties. In graduate school, knowing I was interested in stories dealing with historical trauma, one of my professors assigned me “The Immigrant Story,” which begins,

Jack asked me, Isn’t it a terrible thing to grow up in the shadow of another person’s sorrow?I suppose so, I answered. As you know, I grew up in the summer sunlight of upward mobility. This leached out a lot of that dark ancestral grief.

At the time, I found this passage infuriating. Given no context, no information, no observation, no sensory detail, I felt Paley was accosting the reader, bullying her into paying attention, forcing us to care about these characters rather than slowly building up our sympathies, as I had been taught to do.

In a sense, I was right: Paley relies on aggression and verbal energy, rather than any orthodox technique, to carry the reader through a story. The world of her fiction—whether the Russian Jewish immigrant families of her youth or the Village radicals of her adulthood—is close, insular, hermetically sealed; the characters’ emotional dramas take up all the air, and all the space on the page. It helps to read two or three stories at once, or, better yet, to read a collection from start to finish, in order. Though the stories aren’t ostensibly “linked”—most don’t share characters—together they read like an unfolding conversation among members of an extended, antagonistic family.

Like all the greatest masters of the short story—Chekhov, Hemingway, Sholom Aleichem, Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel—Paley had an uncanny genius for containing a world within a sentence. In her case the sentences are ungainly, even crude; they stick in the mouth. “My husband gave me a broom one Christmas,” the narrator says in the opening of “An Interest in Life.” “I am trying to curb my cultivated individualism, which seemed for years so sweet.” “There were two husbands disappointed by eggs.” Her stories are often described as having a spontaneous, performative quality, like dramatic monologues. But this is a carefully cultivated illusion—her language mimics colloquial speech but pares it down to nubbins of almost Beckett-like brevity: “Pale green greeted him, grubby buds for nut trees” (“The Pale Pink Roast”).

Perhaps the most unresolved tension in Paley’s work lies between her unyielding political idealism (raised by proud and combative socialist parents, she always described herself as a “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist”) and her acute, even overwhelming attraction to the perversities and self-contradictions of ordinary human life. Flannery O’Connor, referring to her own strict and radical Catholicism, wrote that “your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they are no substitute for seeing.” Like O’Connor’s, Paley’s politics seem to have sharpened her appreciation for the grotesque and grubby ugliness she encountered every day. She had a particularly acute eye for hypocrisy: Few writers have written as acidly about idealistic men practicing routine cruelty toward their wives and families. Yet—unlike O’Connor, needless to say—Paley worked for, and expected, the perfectibility of man, dedicating herself to global disarmament, ecological healing, the elimination of racism and poverty. How these two personalities—the keen-eyed and unforgiving observer, the rigid, unsubtle radical—coexisted in the same body is, to me, the mystery of her life, and her art.

Why did Paley never write a novel? At the beginning of her career, her first editor suggested it, and Paley later wrote, “I tried, for a couple of years. I failed.” In a sense, the question is as absurd as asking why Chekhov never did, or Carver, or Borges. “Technically, Grace Paley’s work makes the novel as a form seem virtually redundant,” wrote Angela Carter, and there is something to that argument. It would certainly be possible to build a whole novel out of the line, “Isn’t it a terrible thing to grow up in the shadow of another person’s sorrow?” But Paley, going straight for the jugular, acts as if that novel has already been written (which, of course, it has) and treats the story almost as a coda, a particularly revealing footnote. It may be that, as the child of Russian immigrants who had survived the pogroms and great political upheavals of the turn of the 20th century, she grew up with a sense of literary, as well as historical, belatedness, along with an allergic reaction to any kind of inflated or pompous language. Writing about Isaac Babel’s early work as a translator of war stories from French, she formulates an ars poetica of her own: “By reducing a tendentious twelve-line paragraph … to three lines, he produced clarity, presentness, tension, and a model of how always, though with great difficulty, to proceed.”

Paley published relatively little over a long lifetime, so her influence is diffused over two or three or four generations of American writers, each taking something different from her work. But when I teach her stories to my undergraduate students, they always find them unnerving and discomfiting: Even the nominally well-read have never encountered a voice like hers before. Which is as good an explanation as any for why her stories will continue to be read at a time when most of her contemporaries are forgotten: They still have the power to make 18-year-olds sit up and pay attention. What more could any writer want?