Facts of the Imagination
In Grace Paley's short story collection Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, there is one story where the narrator talks to her father about her work, and he wonders why she doesn't write simple stories. "I would like you to write a simple story just once more," he says, "the kind de Maupassant wrote or Chekhov..." Later in the same story, 'A Conversation with my Father', he insists, "I see you can't tell a plain story. So don't waste time." If in her fiction Paley can't tell a story, in the essay collection Just as I Thought, she seems unwilling to follow a train of thought, as both her tales and her articles seem to blend into an impressionistic, haphazard account of human experience. In her introduction to Enormous Changes..., A. S. Byatt quotes an interview between Paley and Sheila Hale, where Paley explains she likes to read her work aloud because "stories used to be told. The impulse was...I want to tell you something...Guess what happened to me today...we've given our memory away by relying too much on the printed page." But if Paley's work often suggests the verbal, might we add that it is as frequently the person talking aloud to oneself as talking to someone else. Maybe what so disconcerts the father in her work is that it lacks the shape he wants to impose upon it. Whether it resides in asking for the details he feels the narrator avoids, "you misunderstand me on purpose", he says, "you know there's a lot more to it", or in the craft - "he had been a doctor for a couple of decades, and then an artist for a couple of decades, and he's still interested in details, craft, technique" - he wants shape. While he insists the ending of a story she provides him with is a conclusive tragedy, she insists it is "not necessarily the end." As the narrator says earlier in the story, the conventional tale she has always despised: "not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life." Is there an element of auto-critique in Paley's work when one character says of another in The Contest: "You live at your nerve ends. If you're near a radio, you listen to music, if you're near an open icebox, you stuff yourself..."?
To comprehend Paley's work it seems vital to accept its vitality. As Byatt says of 'The Long Distance Runner', "it [the world the character enters] should be terrible: it is: but the vitality of her observation of the life of the speech of the blacks...robs it of greyness, gives it a kind of crazy running energy." This is the verbal energy of the tale half-told, as though life spills over its edge and much of the drive comes not from the technique of storytelling, but its vocal force. Obviously, this is paradoxical: Paley might like to read her stories out loud, but her reputation rests on the written word. Yet there is a long tradition in American literature of the verbal over the literary, from Mark Twain to Hemingway, a verbal sensibility over a written one. It is this verbal sense that brings together the essays and the stories: they do not settle into the neat dichotomies of analytic precision in the former instance and intimate, psychological detail in the latter, but seem to be held together by the impression verbally offered. As Paley says in a short essay called 'Peacemeal' in Just as I Thought, "I believe in the oral tradition in literature." There are passages in 'Enormous Changes at the Last Minute' that could easily be in Just as I Thought. "Eight years, said her father, glad to be useful. Once he had explained electrical storms before you could find the Book of Knowledge." In her introduction to the essay collection, Paley says, "My mother was a woman of unusual kindness. She loved my father, who was considered a difficult man. This made me very romantic. I began as soon as I could (around thirteen or so) my successful searches for difficult men of my own." Her work is made up of impressionistic purpose over narrative detail, and her stories and essays cannot easily be understood outside the political context from whence many of them came. This isn't politics in a narrow sense - she rarely comments on the big issues - but in the colloquial sense. The pieces frequently offer political asides. In 'Enormous Changes of the Last Minute', about a relationship between a young cabbie and a middle-class, middle-aged woman, he says, "I only drive a cab to keep on top of the world of illusion, you know, Alexandra, to rap with the bourgeoisies, the fancy whores, the straight ladies visiting their daddies." In 'The Burdened Man': "The man had the burden of the money." This his wife and son do not understand: "They do not seem to know about the money. They are not stupid, but they leave the hall lights on. They consume electricity. The wife cooks and cooks." In 'The Immigrant Story' the narrator says, "Meanwhile, in Poland famine struck. Not hunger which all Americans suffer six, seven times a day but famine, which tells the body to consume itself. First the fat, then the meat, the muscle, then the blood."
We might even notice that the purpose behind the stories isn't far removed from the purpose behind the social: that open-ended fate she talks about. If a character is too constrained by society or by fiction, then where can the vitality come from? However, the exhausted life needn't always arrive at a lack of energy in the story. This is where the colloquial comes in, with Paley's narrators in awe of life while also wondering why it can't be better, more full, more hopeful. In one of her most harrowing stories, 'Samuel', Paley's narrator believes "some boys are very tough. They're afraid of nothing. They are the ones who climb a wall and take a bow at the top." Samuel is such a person, and along with his friends he rides between the carriages of the train, and one day after seeing the kids mucking around and one of them getting hit, a concerned passenger pulls the emergency cord and "almost at once, with a terrible hiss, the pressure of air abandoned the brakes and the wheels were caught and held." Consequently "all the passengers in the cars whipped back and forth, but he pitched only forward and fell head first to be crushed and killed between the cars." At the end of the story we are in the mother's feelings: "She and her husband together have had other children, but never again will a boy exactly like Samuel be known." In this instance, a life is curtailed tragically in the father's sense of the term in 'A Conversation with my Father'. There is nowhere else for Samuel's life to go. But Paley contains the tragedy within the singular. She ends the story not simply on the tragic dimension, but also on the vital one. The mother was young and became pregnant again: life goes on as other children are born, but none like Samuel.
The political and the personal in her stories and essays rest on what allows for the singularity of existence and the uniqueness of a life. Perhaps why she would be reluctant to say her stories are tragic is that they often end contingently rather than categorically. A tragic event often contains within it the seeds of its own tragedy, with a character's greed, hubris or jealousy propelling them towards goals or desires that kill them. This would be personal tragedy; while the politically tragic would show the impossible life characters undergo because of the socio-political difficulties of their time. If classic tragedy often reveals the former, modern political literature would be more inclined to focus on the latter. If some of Gissing or Zola's novels, works like New Grub Street or The Earth, offer so much sociological detail, it is to contain the characters within tragic dimensions of their time. Paley's stories, though, are slices of life and death, un-arced as they play much more on digression than on detail. Where a tragedy in Aristotle's words must have unity of time and place and remain tight, Paley's stories drift. It is an extension of the naturalistic into the verbally digressive, where the sense of reality isn't in the immense sociological detail, but more in the breathless narration. 'The Little Girl' opens: "Carter stop by the caf early. I just done waxing. He said, I believe I'm having company later on. Let me use your place, Charlie, hear?" 'Faith in a Tree' begins: "Just when I most needed important conversation, a sniff of the man-wide world, that is, at least one brainy, companion who could translate my friendly language into his tongue of undying carnal love, I was forced to lounge in our neighbourhood park, surrounded by children."
If we're to ask what is it in a writer's work which creates what Roland Barthes once called "the effect of the real", in Paley's it lies in the voice. Realism isn't some a priori element to literature, but an effect achievable by various means. If for Zola it lay in documentative detail, in Hemingway in spare prose and in the angry young men novelists of the fifties (Braine, Sillitoe, Barstow) in stunted, class-limiting lives, in Paley's stories the narrative voice often gallops along, the realism residing in the sense of trying to get it all out at once, and instead the story coming out in a fractured manner. After the story 'Conversation with my Father' was published, Paley said in an interview in The Paris Review that everybody thought she wasn't interested in story. What she meant was that she wasn't interested in plot; in knowing where her story was going in advance. She says in the same interview that what interests her is consecutiveness, timeliness. Often her work gives the impression of a story told, not plotted, and we could call her type of realistic approach to narrative verbal realism, a sense of verbal freedom within the syntax, echoed in a comment she makes in a short essay 'Language: Clarice Lispector', on the Brazilian immigrant writer of that name. Lispector was born in the Ukraine, and Paley presumes that her parents spoke a mixture of Russian and Portuguese. "It must have been that meeting of Russian and Portuguese that produced the tone, rhythms that even in translation (probably difficult) are so surprising and right." It is also evident in a piece in Just as I Thought. "Literature has something to do with language", she says in 'Some Notes on Teaching'. "There's probably a natural grammar at the tip of your tongue...Still, if you weren't a tough, recalcitrant kid, that language may have been destroyed by the tongues of schoolteachers who were ashamed of interesting homes, inflection, and language and left them all for correct usage." A lot of writers talk about the importance of a writer finding their own voice, but Paley means it more literally than most.
It is one of her dictums for writing. Another, offered in the same piece, states that while it is "possible to write about anything in the world...the slightest story ought to contain the facts of money and blood in order to be interesting to adults. That is, everybody continues on this earth by courtesy of certain economic arrangements..." Paley might resist putting in the details of a person's life by her father's standards, but she is happy to include details according to her own social beliefs. In 'Enormous Changes at the Last Minute' the central character Alexandra talks about her apartment being "rent controlled", while in 'Faith in the Afternoon' the narrator says, "by the time Ricardo had helped her through two abortions and one lousy winter, she became an alcoholic and a whore for money." In 'The Burdened Man' we're informed: "the truth is, he makes a very good salary and puts away five dollars a week for his son's college." In 'The Immigrant's Story' Paley says, "He was helped by the savings of parents, uncles, grandmothers and set off like hundreds of thousands of others in that year." Money matters, not because her characters are greedy and on the make, but that hers are people who are looking to survive. If the voice helps locate the person socially, the money one has shows how people live. There is a clear sense in Paley's work that literature isn't a form that one masters in language and detail, in the manner in which the dad in 'Conversations with my Father' expects, but in voice and specifics, in what allows literature to be socio-politically personal. As she says in an essay called 'Pressing the Limits of Action': "Feminism's not about ranking priorities and oppressions, but it's about demanding changes on an even vaster scale."
Can we regard Paley's work as activist literature without quite saying it's serving a political purpose? It is so often claimed that if you have a message to deliver then fiction isn't the form in which to deliver it. Yet what happens when a fiction writer offers not a political message but more a political perspective, then can we have the activism without the militancy? Interestingly in an essay 'The Value of Not Understanding Everything', Paley notes that "one of the reasons writers are so much more interested in life than others who just go on living all the time is that what the writer doesn't understand the first thing about is just what he acts like such a specialist about - and that is life." One uses the word activism rather than politics to understand the active life that incorporates living over the passive political belief that holds to a certain dogma. Throughout Just as I Thought, we see the political actions Paley has been involved in, from Nicaragua, to Chile to El Salvador, Vietnam and Iraq, this is politics as activism and witnessing. When she argues with someone over Chile in an article called 'Conversations in Moscow', published in 1974, she says, "maybe ten thousand... were killed in Chile, ten thousand...this time I was angry because I had spent last December and January in Chile", it coincides with her admiration for Isaac Babel. In 'Imagining the Present' she says, "I read somewhere that Isaac Babel said that his main problem was that he had no imagination...I tried to figure out what he meant." "I guess what he really didn't understand was the amount of imagination it had taken him to understand what had happened, what was real." Here she insists, "...he was able to use what he did know about life and poverty and war to stretch toward what he didn't know about the Cossack Red Army. So I think about that as the fact of the imagination."
Paley's work searches out the space between the sort of fictional detail that passes for the conventionally imaginative that the father demands, and the factual description of socio-political events which constitute a vital element of life, contained by a voice that captures experience. In 'The Long-Distance Runner' the narrator is forty-two and takes up running. One day she goes running in her old neighbourhood and moves in with a black family. It gives Paley the opportunity for socio-political contrast within the context of vivid, local emotion. "The tenement in which Jack my old and present friend had come to gloomy manhood had been destroyed, first by fire, then by demolition (which is a swinging ball of steel that cracks bedrooms and kitchens)." Later in the story, the narrator says, "White or black, I said, returning to men, they did think they were bringing a rare gift, whereas it was just sex, which is common like bread, though essential." It is the personal and idiomatic which give texture to the potentially political as one could easily see Paley writing an article on the gentrification of her old neighbourhood.
What counts is the imaginative capacity applied, and it is in Paley's ventriloquist voice that much of the empathy comes. In an aforementioned story like 'The Little Girl' Paley adopts a black register as she tries to find a way in to telling the story of the eponymous character's rape and death as it opens: "Carter stop by the cafe early. I just done waxing. He said, I believe I am having company later on. Let me use your place, Charlie, hear?" Later, "But wasn't it a shame, them two studs. Why they take it out on her?" The story concludes, "Maybe she pull herself the way she was, crumpled, to that open window. She was tore up, she must of thought she was gutted inside her skin" as she seems to have thrown herself out of the window. Paley's purpose is to get inside skins which contain stories that frequently possess a political dimension. What makes the work worthy of fiction though is getting inside these other bodies. When she talks of a writer being a specialist on life, maybe what she means is that a writer is an expert on fellow-feeling. The writer's purpose is not to know things but to get inside them, and Paley's chosen area of empathic expertise is for people who have to worry about bullying, exploitation, debts, rent, illness.
In Paley's work it isn't charity but politics that begins at home, yet a politics where home is the operative word in the sense of the domestic. In 'Wants', the narrator meets up with her ex-husband. As she remembers their breakfasts, she says, "Then I remembered there was a hole in the back of the kitchen closet which opened into the apartment next door. There, they always ate sugar-cured smoked bacon. It gave us a very grand feeling about breakfast, but we never got stuffed and sluggish. That was when we were poor, I said. When were we ever rich? he asked." Paley's voice is that of someone always close to politics, close to the domestic and close to the world of a voice casually offered but strongly held. It is a feminist voice, obviously, but a pragmatic one. As she says, in 'Pressing the Limits of Action': "If you're a feminist it means that you've noticed that male ownership of the direction of female lives has been the order of the day for a few thousand years, and it isn't natural." Paley's stories in their own small way show better ways of organising our lives, socially, politically, emotionally and financially, yet chiefly by the means of suggesting feeling for her fellow man and woman. She is interested in the details; just not quite the ones expected by the conventional figure in 'A Conversation with my Father'.
© Tony McKibbin