Review of Grace
Paley’s The Collected Stories
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/20/07
The very things that have made Grace Paley a terrible poet unfortunately affect her bad fiction as well. She is preachy, pedantic, and damns any notion of advancing skill or craftsmanship over screeding and speechifying. And it’s doubly a shame because her earliest stories showed some potential, however limited, but even more drive. In her The Collected Stories, the book is divided up into the three books of forty-four tales she’s published in her 83 years of life: The Little Disturbances Of Man (1959), Enormous Changes At The Last Minute (1974), and Later The Same Day (1985). She’s certainly not prolific, and aside from a few minor plays and her terrible poetry, this prose is the bulk of her fifty year writing career. Of course, since she’s a Left Wing Radical with Socialist sympathies, a self-described pacifist, feminist, and ‘cooperative anarchist’- whatever that means, her trite crap is praised to the hilt. The back cover of this book contains blurbs from Angela Carter, Donald Barthelme, and Susan Sontag, most notably. Yet, there is nothing of grand literary merit to be gleaned in the ravings about Paley, one of the most overrated of contemporary writers- the yenta poet-cum political screedist. Their blurbs contain the very worst sorts of of blurbery- such as the ridiculous rave:
‘Her prose presents a series of miracles of poetic compression.’- Angela Carter, London Review of Books
The accidental revelation of the real weakness of the writer:
‘Grace Paley is a wonderful writer and troublemaker. We are fortunate to have her in our country.’- Donald Barthelme
Ecuador would be a better country, I think. And then there is the non-literary literary pat on the back:
‘Grace Paley makes me weep and laugh-and admire. She is that rare kind of writer, a natural, with a voice like no one else's: funny, sad, lean, modest, energetic, acute.’- Susan Sontag
Tales from the first book showed some promise that she might be a female Isaac Bashevis Singer, chronicling the Jewish experience in the New World. But, by her second book political speechifying crept in big time, and by her third book it dominates every sentence to the point that Paley does not even attempt to build narratives. Instead she often has two or three page long sketches that one dimensionally portray a pallid political position, then end in clichéd schmaltz.
The Little Disturbances Of Man has some solid tales, such as An Interest in Life, which follows an abandoned wife’s sexual escapades, or The Contest. In The Loudest Voice, a Jewish wife is horrified her daughter will be in a Christmas play, but Paley shows some humor and depth to the Jewish position, by having the husband counter:
‘You’re in America. In Palestine the Arabs would be eating you alive. Europe you had pogroms. Argentina is full of Indians. Here you got Christmas.’
Goodbye And Good Luck shows Paley had some early facility with structuring stories well. By Enormous Changes At The Last Minute the reader sees that the book is dominated by the tales of a divorced woman named Faith, raising her children. In Faith In A Tree, she gets ‘political’, and after meeting Vietnam War protestors, declares herself a political activist. The Long Distance Runner is a silly but pretentious allegory on menopause. Perhaps the most famous tale is A Conversation With My Father, where a female writer explains to her dad a story’s bad ending still subject to change. Early on the dad asks:
‘I would like you to write a simple story just once more,’ he says, ‘the kind Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.’
I say, ‘Yes, why not? That's possible.’ I want to please him, though I don’t remember writing that way. I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: ‘There was a woman.…’, followed by 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.’
Right here we get the reasons for Paley’s abilities, and their ultimate abrogation by herself. She sees art as a political act of ‘freeing’ others, rather than entertaining and enlightening from their dull lives. The dad is by far the wiser character, even though Paley means it to be her doppelganger. The writer writes a tale and she and her dad argue over it, and it’s a bad tale, and this tale seems almost a failure until Paley seemingly admits she’s a fraud- a real artist with delusions of grandeur, for the dad rebukes his daughter thusly:
‘How long will it be?’ he asked. ‘Tragedy! You too. When will you look it in the face?’
It’s as if Paley deliberately gave up the impulse to real art, and her potential to be a real artist, or it just withered away in overly preachy tales like that. This is most evident in the short, one dimensional and screechy sketches like Wants, Living, and Samuel, about a boy who foolishly dies while horsing around on the subways. It’s an intriguing set up that ends with this bathos, after the dead boy’s parents have another child:
But immediately she saw that this baby wasn’t Samuel. She and her husband together have had other children, but never again will a boy exactly like Samuel be known.
Not exactly deep, eh? This book is far less appealing and good than the first one. Yet, it’s still better than her atrocious third book, Later The Same Day. Here, any and all pretense to art is vacated. Didactic art can be stifling for any true aesthete to experience, so by that analogy this awful book is a gas chamber. Paley’s gloom and doom Left Wing politics are all over this ham-handed and ill-wrought collection of tales. Faith and her kids reappear in The Expensive Moment, when a Chinese visitor asks her such unrealistic questions as, ‘Do you notice that in time you love the children more and the man less?’ This is the sort of arch-Feminist tripe that riddles this piss poor collection. The rest of the tale concerns Faith’s worries over her too much influencing one of her sons. She and her boys appear in eight of the other sixteen tales too. In Dreamer In A Dead Language, Faith and her parents meet at an old age home, and feels a sense of failure in them and herself. The result is she begs her sons to bury her. In Friends, Faith’s parents are dead, her sons are grown, and she’s near fifty. One of her sons is a political radical in France and the other’s a terminal pessimist. It seems her fears from The Expensive Moment have borne fruit- another tacit admission that even Paley doubts her simplistic political credos. In Anxiety, Faith watches children riding on their fathers’ shoulders after school and worries of corporate destruction of the planet. In other non-Faith tales her politics kill any potential art just as well.
In Zagrowsky Tells, a small-minded Jewish pharmacist learns that his half-black grandson is not a disgrace to him and his clan, and that his kin is even lovable. In The Garden is a Puerto Rican based tale about a couple whose children have been kidnapped, and they grow to resent the rest of the world. But, the tale that most vividly and sadly portrays Paley’s declining writing skill level is In This Country, But In Another Language, My Aunt Refuses To Marry The Men Everyone Wants Her To. The first tale in the first book, Goodbye And Good Luck, showed Paley experimenting with structure in a pretty good tale. She’d never be that artistically daring again, as In This Country…. is one of those obnoxious written works with a long title but short actual body of work- only a page long, the shortest in the book. Here’s the plot: an old Jewess kvetches. Wonderfully inventive, right?
That Paley has become a lauded writer is a disgrace, but all too symptomatic of these deliterate times we live in- her poems are horrid political screeds with no music nor form, and what little talent she once had in prose she raped for meager fame and acclaim from no talents like Susan Sontag and Donald Barthelme, as this book unfortunately shows. At every turn, her characters become utter stereotypes- usually the worst sort of screechy Left Wing Jewish New York stereotypes. In her later books, Paley manifestly gave up artistic challenges for cheap political acceptance. Her wretched tales are filled with total and creaky artifice, as well the worst sort of political dogma, which is everything antithetical to real art and its production, not to mention hammering the most obvious points home because Paley not only distrusts her readers, but actively despises and belittles them, and that contempt shows through every condescending line she pens. That this collection won the National Book Award demonstrates yet again how politics, not art, dominates the awards process in this nation, and that real and great artists have no chance in the current system, for it’s broken beyond even hope of repair. Even worse, in her Introduction, Paley tells how she ‘accidentally’ first got published, when her husband brought a friend, who just happened to be an editor at Doubleday, home to see her tales. She had only three tales written, at the time, but the enthused editor eagerly asked her for seven or eight stories more, which in toto became her first published book. How the lackluster tales of that first book could impress any editor worth their job into asking for more of the same seems almost incomprehensible, but, since Paley has always been a Leftist cult figure (cults truly do suck in all walks of life), I guess the editor merely liked her political views, if not understanding her so-so craft. Given that depressing start to a career, is it any wonder that, fiftysomething years later, Grace Paley’s art has followed the downward trajectory it has?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Laura Hird website.}
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