Paley’s Planet

Robert Walshe

  • Three of a Kind by Rachel Ingalls
    Faber, 141 pp, £8.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 571 13606 0
  • Home Truths by Mavis Gallant
    Cape, 330 pp, £9.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 224 02344 6
  • Later the Same Day by Grace Paley
    Virago, 211 pp, £8.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 86068 701 5

I have been asking myself lately why reading collections of short stories should be a slog, and I think I have found the answer. It’s the problem of the rich man with a closet full of new shoes. Rich men, as we all know, do not buy a single pair of shoes at a time; they buy ten different models, and in order to distribute them equally throughout five houses in various parts of the world, their hard-pressed valets find themselves staggering out of the shops with something like fifty pairs, if I have done my sums correctly, and that is where the trials begin. Ah, the blisters, the bunions, the saddlesoap. The additional expense of pedicure. A reviewer confronted simultaneously with three polished collections of stories is in much the same fix. I am speaking here of Mavis Gallant, Rachel Ingalls and Grace Paley, all ladies in a world where some of us try hard to be lads,[1] and short stories written by ladies are little different from shoes: they need breaking in. During the course of the past two months, I hobbled dutifully between my various estates with all three under my arm. No sooner had I got used to one than I was obliged to try on another. Seduced by a pretty cover, I picked up Rachel Ingalls first. Three of a Kind contains, as one might expect, three stories, each with a tendency to run to fifty pages, although one falls short. The first of them bears the ominous title ‘I see a long journey’, and game for anything I set off. ‘Flora had met James when she was going out with his younger brother, Edward.’ Promising, because you know instantly from this that however well Edward might have done in the sprint, James is the one for the long haul. And so it turns out. ‘He had had many girlfriends and mistresses, naturally.’ Naturally. We are on good, solid ground here, striding confidently along to the side of experience. Besides, James is the one with the money. If he doesn’t care for Flora at the end of fifty miles, he can always go out and try on another. Flora, for her part, doesn’t love James but is unable to think of a reason to turn him down.

We are now in for what looks like forty pages of marriage, and why people do these things God only – but we are straying from the page.

Their quarrels, misunderstandings and jealousies were like those of other families. And she was like other girls who marry into a group of powerful personalities. She was tugged in different directions by all of them. They expected things of her. They criticised her. They tried to train and educate her. When she was pregnant for the first time, and when she had the child, they told her what she was doing wrong.

In this first of Rachel Ingalls’s stories, we march with her to the edge of the abyss and are hurled over the edge. In the machinery of this fable, ‘we’ are swine. A swipe is taken in passing at a mother-in-law, but the cup doesn’t overflow about that with the same generosity as it does in the flood to damn the power-glutted, money-lusting porkies. If Rachel Ingalls’s blows are justly aimed – and I suspect they are – her targets in all good logic should get what they deserve: life-sentences in suffocating sausageskins.

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[1] According to the OED from ME ladde, ‘serving man’.

[2] I am referring here to François Cheng’s Vide et Plein: Le Language Pictural Chinois, Paris, 1979.

[3] Carol Shields, an American living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, belongs, in my opinion, in this group of potential ghosts. I am surprised and not surprised that no British publisher has discovered her.