CH Keyes's Reviews > The Collected Stories

The Collected Stories by Grace Paley
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Apr 28, 2012

it was amazing
Read in September, 2011

Grace Paley’s collection of short stories is amazing. Once started, I had to find out more about her. This article is from the August 23, 2007, New York Times:
Ms. Paley was among the earliest American writers to explore the lives of women — mostly Jewish, mostly New Yorkers — in all their dailiness. She focused especially on single mothers, whose days were an exquisite mix of sexual yearning and pulverizing fatigue. In a sense, her work was about what happened to the women that Roth and Bellow and Malamud’s men had loved and left behind.

I found that her stories have specific language; Jewish, New Yorkerish, Irish, Italian, Russian, and black. Most of these are written in first person and almost seem to start in mid-conversation, like we dropped in on the park bench part-way through a gossip session. They are snippets of conversations that if read aloud, would stand as overheard dialect. There is a cadence to the pieces, and I found that she has a wonderful ability to over-exaggerate her understatements:
“I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.“Hello, my life,” I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified. “He said, “What? What life? No life of mine”. “I said, “O.K.” I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them. The librarian said $32 even and you’ve owed it for eighteen years. I didn’t deny anything. Because I don’t understand how time passes. I have had those books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away. My ex-husband followed me to the Books Returned desk. He interrupted the librarian, who had more to tell. “In many ways,” he said, “as I look back, I attribute the dissolution of our marriage to the fact that you never invited the Bertrams to dinner.” “That’s possible, I said. But really, if you remember: first, my father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday-night meetings, then the war began.”(129)

She has condensed a lifetime into several sentences—leaving out details yet revealing intimacies of a marriage failed. In a few short sentences she conveys over twenty seven years of life and we understand her meaning, if not her actual life. Marriage, family, the Tuesday-night meetings and all else are forgotten when war starts. And there is so much truth to it that I find myself nodding in agreement.
In the piece titled, “A Conversation With My Father” the male character, whom I can imagine she had this actual conversation with, asks her to write a simple story, with recognizable people and to tell what happens next to them. In fact, Paley’s stories are often about that which doesn’t happen, rather than what does. I think this is a key that makes the people and their conversations so appealing. We want to know what happens next. She creates characters that are honest and fills them with language that is authentic. She acknowledges that some might want more of her. This male character asks why she left out some details, so she re-writes and the answer comes through in the dialog between the father/daughter characters. “…he said, “Number One: You have a nice sense of humor. Number Two: I see you can’t tell a plain story. So don’t waste time…”” (236). He is correct; her stories aren’t plain, though the plainness of ordinary life is evident.
What strikes me most about Grace Paley is how she uses the speech she knows, the language of her home, the streets, the people she knows, in her stories and this authenticates them. I cannot doubt her fiction stories as truth. She knows her characters, their lives, dreams, and desires too intimately to be a lie. Like her father character, I want to know what happens next.
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Helen I had an instructed as an undergrad who took classes from Ms Paley. She said she was an awesome professor.


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