Revelation and Return: Sixty Years of Grace Paley’s The Little Disturbances of Man
Justin Taylor Revisits an Essential American Writer
Middle photo by Elissa Marder.
I think I’m being haunted by Grace Paley a little and if it’s true I suppose I’m boasting. I’ve known her work for what feels like forever, during which time she’s been variously on and off my radar—you know how these things go—but I had felt a renewed interest brewing for most of 2019, kinda tied to this Jewish thing I’ve been going through, and her name kept popping up in unexpected places (a rock band’s newsletter?) so in late August I tossed my copy of her Collected Stories into my carry-on luggage and took it with me to the Vermont Studio Center, where I read it every day for the whole month of September and then kept reading it after I got home.
I had forgotten until I got there that Paley lived in Vermont later in her life, was the state’s poet laureate for a while, and had even been involved with the Studio Center. All I was thinking about (other than the Jewish thing) was getting myself back to writing stories after taking a long time off from fiction to write a memoir about my father. I thought Paley would light a fire for me because I knew her work, but not well enough and not lately, so it would be both familiar and strange to me: at once a revelation and a return. (Which is a lot like the Jewish thing, come to think of it.) At VSC I got assigned to the Emile Zola Studio, which happens to be next door to the Grace Paley Studio, and I admit that I was jealous of the poet who had lucked into it, but we shared a wall at least. I consoled myself with adjacency, and the fact that even though I couldn’t boast her name on my doorpost, I had 30 years’ worth of her stories in my hand.
It’s not that many stories. Paley was an artist of the highest order, but she was also an activist, a pacifist, a mother, and a citizen. She saw her several callings as connected, and ideally as indistinct from each other, but when circumstance forced her to choose between protesting the war and making art, or standing up for free speech and making art, or building community and making art, she tended to back-burner the art-making. This may be one reason why her output was relatively slender and why it has been relatively undervalued. I don’t mean to suggest she’s neglected, exactly, only taken for granted at times. Well, whose mother hasn’t been?
While making my way through the Collected I realized that Paley’s debut, The Little Disturbances of Man, turns 60 years old this year. The diamond jubilee! I can hear her laughing. Which reminds me: 1959, the year of Little Disturbances, was also the year that Roth debuted with Goodbye, Columbus and Updike published his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair.
Roth turned 26 that year, and Updike 27. Paley, who’d been born in 1922, was 37 years old, stranded between the generation of Bellow (1915) and Ellison (1914), and that of Roth (1933) and Updike (1932), which would in time also become Barthelme’s (1931) and Lish’s (1934). Lish, by the way, was still an undergraduate in 1959—25 years old, belatedly finishing a B.A. at the University of Arizona. Barthelme was working as a reporter at the Houston Post, his first stories yet unwritten. Don DeLillo, 23, was a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather. Raymond Carver was 19 and Denis Johnson was 10.
[/pullquote] “It’s possible to write about anything in this world, but the slightest story ought to contain the facts of money and blood in order to be interesting to adults.”[/pullquote]
Whatever else you can say about those Roth and Updike books, they both read like what they are: early books. Journeyman style and all the preoccupations of men who not very long ago were boys. (I’ll say that I love Goodbye, Columbus, and that the less said of Updike, the better.) Paley, who had studied at Hunter College and The New School but never completed a B.A., who had married young and spent the 50s raising two children—hardly a housewife in the June Cleaver mold, but a homemaker, to be sure—did not enjoy the luxuries of prolonged adolescence or literary precocity.
In an essay called “Some Notes on Teaching: Probably Spoken,” Paley says, “It’s possible to write about anything in this world, but 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; people are rich or poor, make a living or don’t have to, are useful to systems or superfluous. And blood—the way people live as families or outside families or in the creation of family, sisters, sons, fathers, the bloody ties. Trivial work ignores these two FACTS and is never comic or tragic.”
Paley’s work ignores neither fact, and is both highly comic and deeply tragic, usually at the same time. The Little Disturbances of Man is always aware of money and blood. More crucially still, it is aware of how the former becomes the latter, and vice versa. And it is not journeyman work. Paley has no immature style and there is nothing preliminary or inessential about this book or anything in it. She arrives at the height of her powers and there she stays.
Re-reading The Little Disturbances of Man in my studio in Vermont (feeling very Jewish for a change and coveting the studio next door) I was having my mind blown by Paley’s humor, humanity, and high style. Also her earthiness and candor. Hers is the literature of the teeming city street and the steaming tenement kitchen, sure, but if you think Philip Roth invented sex, try the opening story of Disturbances, “Goodbye and Good Luck,” in which a middle-aged woman recalls the long arc of her romance with a star of the Yiddish theater. Or “The Contest,” a story with a male narrator who swoons over “girls, slim and tender or really stacked, dark brown at their centers, smeared by time.” If you think minimalism and the gut-punch ending were first developed at Carver & Lish Laboratories and released commercially in 1976, check out “The Used-Boy Raisers” or “An Irrevocable Diameter.” And if you think that acoustics-driven composition was discovered on a set of golden plates at Columbia University in September 2008, here are a couple of opening paragraphs for you.
Pale green greeted him, grubby buds for nut trees. Packed with lunch, Peter strode into the park. He kicked aside the disappointed acorns and endowed a grand admiring grin to two young girls. (“The Pale Pink Roast.”)
No doubt that is Eddie Teitelbaum on the topmost step of 1434, a dark-jawed, bossy youth in need of repair. He is dredging a cavity with a Fudgsicle stick. He is twitching the cotton in his ear. He is sniffing and snarling and swallowing spit because of rotten drainage. But he does not give a damn. Physicalities aside, he is only knee-deep so far in man’s inhumanity; he is reconciled to his father’s hair-shirted Jacob, Itzik Halbfunt; he is resigned to his place in this brick-lined Utrillo which runs east and west, flat in the sun, a couple of thousand stoop steps. On each step there is probably someone he knows. For the present, no names. (“In Time Which Made a Monkey of Us All.”)
You can find Paley’s influence or precedent in writers as otherwise unalike as James Alan McPherson, Leonard Michaels, Alice Munro, Stanley Elkin, Raymond Carver, Lucia Berlin, Donald Barthelme, Allan Gurganus, Ursula K. Le Guin, and anyone who ever studied with Gordon Lish. She set aesthetic, political, and ethical examples, and in so doing opened all sorts of doors to all sorts of writers and writing, across genres and generations. This too is from her “Notes on Teaching” essay: “Literature has something to do with language. There’s probably a natural grammar at the tip of your tongue. You may not believe it, but if you say what’s on your mind in the language that comes to you from your parents and your street and your friends, you’ll probably say something beautiful.”Paley has no immature style and there is nothing preliminary or inessential about this book or anything in it. She arrives at the height of her powers and there she stays.
In his introduction to A Grace Paley Reader, George Saunders puts it this way: “In Paley you hear America singing, yes, but also: belly-aching, kvetching, teasing, advocating, disowning, politicizing, explaining the states of their bodies, assessing friends, lovers, and their children with both clinical distance and aching love, sometimes in the same sentence.” That’s true, but it wouldn’t be much in the spirit of Grace Paley if you had to take only my and George’s word for it, so I reached out to some friends and asked what Paley’s work has meant to them.
Lauren Groff: I love Grace Paley; I love her sharpness and wisdom and radical anger and the compression in all of her work. I met her in 2005, when I was a new writer with a residency at the Vermont Studio Center and she came for a visit. She was a tiny lady with dandelion-clock hair, both ferocious and funny. She did not suffer fools, not a whit, and she set the time bomb ticking loudly in me when she looked at us and with grief and prescience told us all that humanity was not going to last another 100 years, so we better roll our sleeves up and get cracking.
Rebecca Schiff: I’m a huge Grace Paley fan. She has a poetic efficiency and of course a wry Jewish sense of humor that inspire me tremendously. But there’s no other Paley. She’s the one.
Catherine Lacey: I love Grace Paley, though I have to say I didn’t understand her right off. I think I read her first at 23 and didn’t get it. Then I came back her stories at 31 and it hit me. I do think Enormous Changes at the Last Minute is my favorite collection of hers. I think a few enormous adult changes have to happen to a reader before they can feel the subtle statements she makes in there. Two stories from that collection are completely etched in my mind: “Wants” and “Living.” What’s remarkably Paley, to me, is how unfussy and balanced all her sentences are. And the total lack of cynicism is amazing to me. How could she be so sharp and so soft at once?
Nadia Owusu: I love hearing Paley’s characters talk to each other. They talk about love, friendship, and family. And, they talk about the kind of politics that writers are often instructed to keep out of art. Her characters protest wars and get arrested at sit-ins. They argue about Communism and feminism. In her stories, as in life, the intimate and the political are hopelessly tangled.
Lynne Tillman: Grace Paley is an impossibly brilliant writer. It might be impossible to define her genius. Paley used unusual phrasings and language to ignite sentences with brilliant insights with which to explore and honor her flawed characters, finding in them their humanity, treating them with compassion, undergirding all her stories and poems with love and an absolute belief in the possibility of a better world. Paley made this seem simple, amazingly so, but her achievement is breathtaking. I can’t think of a better American writer or a more modest one.
David Leavitt: When I say that Grace made me want to become a writer, I mean that literally. She was the first writer I ever heard read her work aloud (I was seventeen at the time), the first writer I ever talked about writing with—and what a piece of luck that was, or, as she might have put it, what a luck that was! I’ll never forget her, nor will I ever cease to be amazed and re-amazed by her work.
Now it happens that the one time I saw Grace Paley in person it was because of David Leavitt. This was 2003, i.e. forever ago, and I was an undergrad at the University of Florida, where David teaches. He had brought her down for the MFA program’s Writers Festival. I was going through a bad patch that week, was about jumping out of my skin, couldn’t stand my friends or my house or my own thoughts and had been awake for nearly 48 hours—no sense getting into it, but trust me it was ugly. I didn’t know who Grace Paley was. I went to her reading because I didn’t know what else to do with myself; all I wanted was an hour’s reprieve from my own bullshit.
And in walked this woman who looked and sounded like my Great Grandma Florence (who had died only a year or two earlier; I really did wonder whether I was dreaming) and she took full command of the jam-packed room and prefaced her reading with an anecdote about her father, which turned out to not be an anecdote but the reading itself. She read what was then a brand-new story, “My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age,” and followed it—at David’s request—with a classic, “Gloomy Tune,” from her 1974 collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. In less time than it takes to have a single therapy session, she transfixed and cleansed and renewed me, so I bought her Collected Stories and read it and later gave it to my mother, who read it and said, “When I read these stories it’s like your great grandmother is still alive.”
I knew I would never forget about that, or about Paley. Except that then I kind of did. And then I remembered and then I forgot again and so the cycle goes. Now her first book is 60 years old and I’m 37, the age that she was when she published it. My father’s dead and I had to stop what I was doing for a couple of years and write a book about him, and so a story like “My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age” reads differently to me now than it did 16, almost 17 years ago. Last month I was driving across Idaho listening to Allan Gurganus read it on The New Yorker fiction podcast, just cruising along I-90 and loving that Gurganus twang and those Paley rhythms and weeping for my father and there was the brutal beauty of Idaho, scrolling by.
Any story that’s worth anything will be different every time you come back to it. And every Grace Paley story is worth something. Some of them, I suspect, are worth everything. You re-read them and they re-read you and that mixture of revelation and return is why you do it. If this is what a haunting is I hope I never find the end of mine. But this essay does have to end and I want to leave you with Paley in her own words, so here’s something she said of Isaac Babel, which I find to be equally true of The Little Disturbances of Man, and of her work in general:
“One must begin by telling those who still don’t know those stories that they are unusual in a particular way. [They] can be read again and again. I don’t mean every five or ten years. I mean in one evening a story you read just six months ago can be read a couple of times—and not because the story is a difficult one. There’s so much plain nutrition in it, the absolute accuracy and astonishment in the language, the breadth of the body and the height of the soul. You do feel yourself healthier, spiritually speaking, if also sadder—or happier, depending on the story.”