Grace Paley, the great American short-story writer, who died Aug. 22 at the age of 84, was a very small woman—perhaps 5-2—with a halo of wispy white hair, whose voice had the unmistakable inflection of the Jewish Bronx of her youth. Surrounded by admirers, many of them 40 or 50 or 60 years her junior, she sometimes appeared a beloved, cranky, wisecracking bubbe, imparting bits of wisdom and wistful memories of a colorful life—Greenwich Village in the '50s, Vietnam, the women's movement. For younger women writers, in particular, Paley was a kind of guardian saint, a cold-eyed veteran of a more difficult era. "I had been sold pretty early on the idea that I might not be writing the important serious stuff," she wrote, with characteristically barbed irony, of the time when she began working on her first stories. "As a grown-up woman, I had no choice. Everyday life, kitchen life, children life, had been handed to me, my portion."
Paley once cheerfully admitted she found it impossible to imagine the lives of "the corporate ruling bosses of our economy," and indeed, her work is willfully nearsighted—deliberately (in some ways deceptively) small. At times, it feels almost utopian, as if the author believed the world's troubles could be solved by an all-night argument in an apartment on 11th Street. It is also some of the strangest, thorniest, most challenging and exasperating American fiction written in the last half-century. Like Philip Guston's paintings or Patti Smith's songs, her stories are an acquired taste—sometimes easier to appreciate than to enjoy. But it's a taste worth acquiring.
Chekhov famously told a younger writer that he should take the notebook in which he'd written a story, tear it in half, and begin with the second half. Paley takes that advice to almost unheard-of extremes. Her stories often begin in midconversation, or even midthought; they make no allowance for the reader's uncertainties. In graduate school, knowing I was interested in stories dealing with historical trauma, one of my professors assigned me "The Immigrant Story," which begins,
Jack asked me, Isn't it a terrible thing to grow up in the shadow of another person's sorrow?
I suppose so, I answered. As you know, I grew up in the summer sunlight of upward mobility. This leached out a lot of that dark ancestral grief.
At the time, I found this passage infuriating. Given no context, no information, no observation, no sensory detail, I felt Paley was accosting the reader, bullying her into paying attention, forcing us to care about these characters rather than slowly building up our sympathies, as I had been taught to do.
In a sense, I was right: Paley relies on aggression and verbal energy, rather than any orthodox technique, to carry the reader through a story. The world of her fiction—whether the Russian Jewish immigrant families of her youth or the Village radicals of her adulthood—is close, insular, hermetically sealed; the characters' emotional dramas take up all the air, and all the space on the page. It helps to read two or three stories at once, or, better yet, to read a collection from start to finish, in order. Though the stories aren't ostensibly "linked"—most don't share characters—together they read like an unfolding conversation among members of an extended, antagonistic family.