What can put you off Grace Paley’s stories is their charm. ‘An Interest in Life’ in the collection called The Little Disturbances of Man begins: ‘My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn’t right. No one can tell me it was meant kindly.’ It is so scrupulously disarming an intro that it is bound to put people who like Joan Didion very much on their guard. And it is alarmingly easy to fall into the language of the Martini ad when writing about Grace Paley – wry, dry tender, ironic etc.
The snag is, her work has all these qualities: it is an added irony that, since the fin has come a little early this siècle and anomie is all the rage, wry, dry tenderness is a suspect commodity. Not that Paley appears to give one jot for psychosocial hem-lengths. She is, as we used to say, ‘for life’, and clearly cannot imagine why anybody should be against it. Not that the wonderful world of Grace Paley is all sunshine: the heroine of ‘An Interest in Life’ is kept from despair only by a Micawberesque sustaining illusion that the broom-giver, now defected, will return. (It’s obvious that, if he does, she’ll really be in trouble.)
But the charm is a problem, though, both infuriatingly irresistible and, since couched in the faux-naif style, verging dangerously on the point of cloy. The title story of the collection called Enormous Changes at the Last Minute almost goes over the top. A middle-aged social-worker, Alexandra, is surprised into bed with a feckless hippy. ‘That’s my bag. I’m a motherfucker,’ he crows complacently. He impregnates her. Her aged father is justifiably enraged. ‘After that, Alexandra hoped every day for her father’s death, so that she could have a child without ruining his life at the very end of it when ruin is absolutely retroactive.’
But Paley contrives to transcend this Shirley Maclainesque scenario completely. Alexandra reorganises her apartment as a refuge for pregnant teenagers, setting an interesting precedent in social work. Her father falls, bangs his head, clears his brain, begins again ‘with fewer scruples’. The hippy composes a celebratory anthem about parent-child relationships that is a hit from coast to coast and is ‘responsible for a statistical increase in visitors to old-age homes by the apprehensive middle-aged and the astonished young’.
That single adjective, ‘astonished’, is sufficient to illuminate retrospectively this everyday story of marginal folk. We see that it is not a quaint tale of last-minute motherhood so much as an account of that reconciliation with old age and kinship which is, in itself, a reconciliation with time. Extracted from the text, the characters are patently emblematic: an old man, his daughter, a young man, a chorus of girls, a boy child. There is even an off-stage cameo guest appearance by Alexandra’s ex-husband, the Communist Granofsky. (‘Probably boring the Cubans to death this very minute,’ opines her father.)
As in the News of the World, the whole of human life is here, and, indeed, many of Paley’s plots would not disgrace that journal. Other stories feature a man shot by a jealous cop, his neighbour’s husband; a white runaway raped, beaten, dead, in a black neighbourhood – Paley extends tenderness and respect even to the rapists. There are shotgun marriages and catatonic boys. But do not think that, Ophelia-like, Paley can turn hell itself to favour and to prettiness. In Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, two stories – ‘Gloomy Tune’ and ‘Samuel’ – are done as straight as case-histories. ‘Gloomy Tune’ is an analysis of social deprivation. The problem children ‘never stole. They had a teeny knife. They pushed people on slides and knocked them all over the playground. They wouldn’t murder anyone, I think.’ They are doomed. ‘Samuel’ is probably one of the great works of fiction in our century, although it is but four pages long. He is a bold child killed at dangerous play on the subway. His mother is young and soon pregnant again.
Then for a few months she was hopeful. The child born to her was a boy. They brought him to be seen and nursed. She smiled. But immediately she saw that this baby wasn’t Samuel.
I love to think how Joan Didion would hate Grace Paley. If a continent divides Paley’s seedy, violent multi-ethnic New York from Didion’s neurasthenic vision of LA as a city of the plain, their sensibilities are those of different planets. But, then, the poor always have an unfair moral edge on the rich, and most Paley characters are on Welfare.
Those who manage to keep their heads above water tend to come from good socialist stock. Even in retirement with the Children of Judea, one old man plots to organise the help. Ex-husbands constantly send committed postcards from developing countries. Ex-husbands are far more frequent on these pages than husbands, though, as in ‘The Used-Boy Raisers’ and ‘The Pale Pink Roast’, often turning up again like the refrain of an old song – mysterious, irrelevant, yet never quite consigned to oblivion.
Paley does not efface herself from the text. A homogeneous, immediately recognisable personality pervades everything she writes. Nevertheless, she is a ventriloquist par excellence, and speaks the American that has been moulded by Russian, Polish and Yiddish as eloquently as she can personate the speech of Harlem. She can change sex, too: as a first person, she credibly becomes a man, young or old. Shape-shifting is no problem – thin, fat. ‘I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh.’ This is ‘Goodbye and Good Luck’, in The Little Disturbances of Man, the only one of all these stories that has a strong flavour of another writer. In this case, Isaac Bashevis Singer, with whom Paley shares a tradition and an idiom.
All the same, all the narrative roles Paley undertakes are those of the same kind of marginal people, with essentially the same exhausted, oblique tolerance as those child-besieged women, usually called Faith (she has a sister, Hope), who seem most directly to express the real personality of the writer. One of them describes her own marginality: ‘I was forced by inclement management into a yellow-dog contract with Bohemia, such as it survives.’ And perhaps the continuous creation of this fictive personality, who we are always conscious of as the moving force behind the narratives, is the real achievement of these two marvellous collections. As if, somehow, this omnipresent meta-narrator is, finally, more important than the events described. I think this meta-personality is, in fact, something like conscience.
The charm turns out to be a stalking-horse, a method of persuasion, the self-conscious defensive/protective mechanism characteristic of all exploited groups, a composite of Jewish charm, Black charm, Irish charm, Hispanic charm, female charm. It is part of the apparatus of the tragic sense of life.
Technically, Grace Paley’s work makes the novel as a form seem virtually redundant. Each one of her stories has more abundant inner life than most other people’s novels; they are as overcrowded as the apartments they all live in, and an enormous amount can happen in five or six pages. Her prose presents a series of miracles of poetic compression. There are some analogies for her verbal method – e.e. cummings, perhaps, also a smiler with a knife, but she rarely plumbs his depths of cuteness. She has the laconic street eloquence of some of the Beats. This is not English English; scarcely a Wasp graces these pages. Yet the cumulative effect of these stories is that of the morality of the woman of flexible steel behind them; most of all, because of her essential gravity, she reminds me, strangely enough, of George Eliot. But, within its deliberately circumscribed compass, Grace Paley’s work echoes with the promise of that sense, not of optimism, but of inexhaustibility, which is the unique quality of the greatest American art. She is also living proof that the only hope for the USA – like the USSR in this as in so much else – lies in certain of its dissidents.