I've wanted to read Grace Paley for a while now and finally this weekend I had my chance, since her story "Distance" had its turn in Infinite Riches. I find Paley fascinating, but I have to say I had a hard time with the story and thought it was a little perplexing. I think that was more my fault than hers, but even a skimming of the story after the fact has left me a little bit adrift, and I'm not sure why really.
I believe Grace Paley only ever wrote short stories and poetry. She grew up speaking not only English but also Yiddish and Russian. She was a Pacifist and political activist and I think her experiences and beliefs inspired her writing. In reading a little more about her, it seems she is known for fragmented and incomplete plots, shifting narrators and other stylistic devices used in Postmodern fiction. Perhaps that explains my struggle with this story.
"Distance" appeared in a short story collection in 1975. At one point the narrator, Dolly Raferty, muses:
"Now, some serious questions, so far unasked:"
"What the devil is it all about, the noisiness and the speediness, when it's no distance at all?"
Indeed. I ask myself that as well. I don't know how to interpret "distance"--life led so far? But Dolly is questioning her life. The setting surely must be New York City. Dolly is married to Jack and they have a son named John. Dolly seems pretty confident and outspoken and appears to know her own mind, or at least is willing to share her opinion. And opinions she has on her wandering husband, and her son whose wife she doesn't seem to exactly approve of. Maybe it is less his wife than the fact that John (like his father) has had an on again off again affair with a woman in her apartment building.
I might say Dolly is a careful observer of those in her neighborhood, but she is more an 'opinionated' observer and there is a grittiness in how she expresses herself--certainly with no subtlety or finesse.
"Anyhow there are different kinds coming into this neighborhood, and I do no mean the colored people alone. I mean people like you and me, religious, clean, many of these have gone rotten. I go along with live and let live, but what of the children?"
Dolly is a curious woman, but I think it is Paley herself who is the careful observer of life around her. I was reading her obituary (she died in 2007) in the New York Times and they said this about her work:
"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 think for this alone I would be willing to read more of Paley's work even if it is a struggle. You certainly get that sense of ordinariness and dailiness in this story. I imagine these are lives that are not easy to live and are colorful and difficult. I only hope there might have been some happiness in them, too.
new Week: Dorothy Richardson. I thought I was just one story away from completing this collection, but there is one long story by Rebecca West after the Richardson. Soon! I already have a short mental list of potential places to find my next stories.
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If I struggled with the Paley story, I found Luke Mogelson's story in the New Yorker (April 27 issue) mesmerizing. I'm not familiar with Mogelson's work, but I believe he is a journalist. He was in the National Guard and had hoped to be deployed to Afghanistan but that never happened. He is now stationed in Iraq. His story "Peacetime" is about a National Guardsman who also happens to be a paramedic in NY during peacetime. Once again this is an interesting portrait of a man who is likely carrying with him the scars of being deployed to a war zone. It comes out in little (well, big, really) ways in his life, like separating from his wife and sleeping on a cot in a medical-supply closet in the armory on Lexington Avenue. Or the fact that he steals something small from the people he is supposed to be aiding. I'm not sure what is was about "Peacetime"--it just grabs you from the first and then moves along at such a fast clip you can't help but be pulled along into the story. You can read the Q&A with Mogelson here.