Grace Paley believes that art has a practical function—to make “justice in the world.” And for that reason, she adds, “it almost always has to be on the side of the underdog.” Like certain other writers who started out in the 50’s, Mrs. Paley is concerned with “little people,” mostly women, individuals with small-scale lives and low horizons, people harried or baffled by the disorderly rush of existence.
Mrs. Paley is a writer with a large reputation built on a small output. Considered by many to be a master of the short-story form, she has to her credit just three slim volumes after nearly three decades of writing. By way of explanation, she claims that “art is too long and life is too short.” In her case “life” has included raising two children and now also embraces teaching, but mainly it involves politics. Indeed, Mrs. Paley’s fight against injustice is not confined to her art. A long-time activist, she has for decades been a member of the War Resisters’ League and has campaigned for draft resistance, prison reform, environmentalism, feminism, and the nuclear freeze; she has been distributing leaflets, signing statements, organizing protests, marching and/or sitting down for various causes since she opposed civil-defense drills as a PTA mother in Greenwich Village in the 50’s.
Actually, Mrs. Paley’s interest in radical politics dates from even before that, since she is, she tells us, a second-generation revolutionist/ activist. Her Ukrainian-born Jewish parents agitated against czarist oppression in turn-of-the-century Russia, and one of her uncles was killed while carrying the workers’ flag in 1904. While still in his teens, her father, Isaac Goodside, was arrested several times for revolutionary activity; he was finally exiled to Siberia in 1904. Her mother, Manya Ridnyk, was also exiled, by one report to Germany, by Mrs. Paley’s own to Siberia. In that same year, the czar freed all prisoners under twenty-one in honor of the birth of his son. The pair took advantage of this opportunity to come to America in 1905, settling first on the Lower East Side and then in the Bronx, where Mrs. Paley was born in 1922.
Once in America, the young couple began to enjoy the “summer sunshine of upward mobility,” as their daughter has since termed it, not without a trace of sarcasm. Isaac taught himself English by reading Dickens and became a doctor; Manya worked supportively beside him in the manner of immigrant women. Although her parents, according to Mrs. Paley, did not “stay radical,” becoming instead “hard-working patriotic immigrants,” nevertheless “they talked a lot about that period of their lives; they really made me feel it and see it, so there is that tradition.” In addition, Mrs. Paley’s uncles and aunts all belonged to different leftist political parties and attended lectures at Cooper Union and meetings of the ILGWU. “They were a fabulous generation,” she asserts warmly. (Her other favorite generation is the one that came of age in the 60’s. Thinking sorrowfully of “those kids in the Brink’s case,” she has mourned “a wonderful generation . . . idealistic, self-giving, and honorable,” “that whole beloved generation of our children who were really wrecked.”)
Mrs. Paley attended Hunter College for a while but soon dropped out. At age nineteen she married Jess Paley, a projectionist, had her two children, and in effect embarked upon the life that was to become the substance of her stories—the neighborhood, the block, the streets, the stores, the schools, the PTA, the kids, the playground, mothers sitting at windows, men and women askew, the generations at odds, “all the irremediableness of modern life,” as she was to call it. The marriage virtually ended after three years, although it was not legally dissolved for twenty.
In 1959 she published her first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man, to fine reviews, and to special praise from other writers like Philip Roth, Donald Barthelme, Susan Sontag, and Herbert Gold. The book soon dropped out of print, but it became something of an underground classic, and was republished by a different house in 1969. In 1974 came her second collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, which also received generally excellent reviews; and now this year her third, Later the Same Day,1 of which the reviews have ranged from enthusiastic to ecstatic.
Whatever the final assessment of Grace Paley’s art, her first collection did reveal a degree of talent and ingenuity. Her style can be fresh and explosive. She works by sound, allowing one idiosyncratic voice, complete with New York or Yiddish intonation, to shape content and perception through a kind of wryly comical perspective. Sometimes the technique fails—the perspective (as in “The Floating Truth,” “A Woman Young and Old,” “The Pale Pink Roast”) being so limited or fragmented as to prevent a proper understanding of scope or significance. But other stories touch and move and prod and tickle the reader into the character’s world. “Goodbye and Good Luck,” “The Loudest Voice,” and “The Contest” are examples—all, not coincidentally, on Jewish themes; later attempts at other voices (black, Irish, etc.) were less successful.
By the time she was writing the stories that were to become her second collection, however, the Vietnam war had intervened and Mrs. Paley’s radical sympathies were given new opportunities to flourish. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute accordingly reflects this deeper political involvement. Some stories openly celebrate activism. In addition, the little people are now identical with “the oppressed”—the poor, the young, runaways, welfare mothers, single mothers, pregnant teenagers, drug addicts, criminals. In general, the collection is less attractive than the first. Some of the stories still have a modicum of recognizable shape (“Faith in the Afternoon”) but a good number are just skimpy throwaways, poorly thought out and obscure little fragments (“Debts,” “The Gloomy Tune,” “Living,” “Wants,” “Politics,” “Come On, Ye Sons of Art”), suggesting that the author had other things on her mind.
What were those other things? In 1969, Mrs. Paley was part of a delegation from the “peace” movement that traveled to Hanoi to receive three American pilots who were prisoners of war. According to Mrs. Paley, the decision to release the pilots had been prompted by the “humanitarian tradition” of the Vietnamese. She wrote of her experiences in an essay entitled “Report from the DRV” (Democratic Republic of Vietnam) for WIN, the official organ of the War Resisters’ League.
Although the North Vietnamese did not lack for prominent Americans to proselytize for their cause, they must have been especially gratified at the solicitude displayed by Mrs. Paley. To her hosts she wondered aloud about the wisdom of releasing the three prisoners, who might return to America only “to make bad propaganda” for Hanoi. She marveled at how well the pilots were treated. No abuse of them was permitted, she wrote in her report. Medical care was immediate, thorough, and sustained throughout detention.
The Vietnamese even had a philosophy regarding these captives—these “madmen,” as Mrs. Paley terms them. “The pilot in the sky was a killer to be hunted and brought down, but the pilot on the ground was a helpless man in their hands, though certainly a war criminal, to be cared for if sick, and eventually to be rehabilitated out of his American insanity if possible.” As for the means of this rehabilitation, a pilot might be taken to see at close hand the land and people he had bombed from thousands of feet above ground, or brought to the zoos and museums of Hanoi, presumably so that he might be impressed with the value of the civilization he was bent on destroying. A particularly original and generous-hearted tactic involved treating the man to a birthday party “to remind him of his mother and family. That he was born from them—from human beings, not to kill innocent people, not to end up in this prison camp,” in the words of a Vietnamese official quoted by Mrs. Paley.
Mrs. Paley’s passion for the “people’s war” of Vietnam flared onto paper once again in 1975 when she wrote a fiery protest against the latest depredation of the American empire—the airlift of orphans and babies of mixed American-Vietnamese parentage. She argued fervently against the lift, which, she claimed, would deprive “those small survivors” of the “fruits of so many years of revolutionary patriotic struggle.”
Regrettably, given her sharp eye for the extraordinary detail, Mrs. Paley has apparently elected not to comment on the “fruits” of the Vietnamese “revolutionary patriotic struggle” since 1975. Lest anyone imagine her to be mortified over recent disclosures of Vietnamese Communist brutality, however, she has supplied an explanation for her silence: “I’m not over my Vietnam anger yet,” she insisted in a recent interview. “Having poisoned them, we’re starving them. Our whole relation to Vietnam is so shameful I can hardly talk about it.”
Thus it is not from Mrs. Paley that we will learn that at about the same time she was thrilling to tales of Potemkin birthday parties, Vice Admiral James Stockdale was being tortured by his Vietnamese captors, held in hand and leg irons, kept for weeks in blindfold and painfully tight cuffs until he was “reduced to a blind crippled animal shitting on the floor.”
Stockdale’s case was typical of how the North Vietnamese treated American prisoners whom they were not planning to use to beguile itinerant peaceniks. And what was done to our own men, incredibly enough, seems negligible when compared with what has been and is being done to the Vietnamese people themselves. Leaving aside the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who have fled the horrors of Communist rule, Vietnam now holds about 500,000 political prisoners in horrendous “reeducation” camps—it is estimated that more than a million have passed through at different times, including former North Vietnamese soldiers who had been held prisoner in the South and are therefore considered ideologically tainted. From well before Mrs. Paley’s 1969 visit, the notorious Camp of Return (meaning return to dust) was in the process of slowly murdering all but 23 of its 2,600 inmates. One survivor of another camp reported seeing as many as 250 persons a day starving to death.
As monstrous as their government is, the Vietnamese have not forgotten who else must share responsibility for the devastation of their country. Tran Nhu, a survivor of seventeen years in North Vietnamese camps, has written that the Vietnamese people have suffered as much from Hanoi’s “blind unquestioning supporters throughout the world” as they have from their own rulers.
Having done her part to bring peace to the tormented Southeast Asian subcontinent, Mrs. Paley moved on to even greater good works in 1974 when she went to Moscow as a delegate of the War Resisters’ League to the World Peace Congress. Upon her return, she again wrote up her exploits for WIN, and excerpted for the wider readership of the Village Voice a section of which she must have been particularly proud.
In Moscow, this self-described anarchist found herself feeling like a “Russian patriot” (just as she had earlier felt patriotic about Vietnam; the United States, by contrast, she has described as “a nation with tens of thousands of nuclear bombs, army bases, weapons factories”). She exclaims over “Mother Russia” and thinks of Uncle Russya, killed while carrying the workers’ flag in 1904. Like a Soviet Carl Sandburg, she evokes the bustle of Moscow life—the people warmly dressed, “the children in magnificent fur-lapped hats,” the girls of rosy countenance, all rushing with high energy on their daily rounds, shopping, talking, walking arm in arm, happily visiting until late hours.
Yet despite this cheerful scene, Mrs. Paley knows that all is not well in the workers’ paradise. Indeed, she and fellow activists Noam Chomsky, Reverend Daniel Berrigan, David McReynolds, Dave Dellinger, Sidney Peck, and Reverend Paul Mayer signed a statement calling attention to the plight of Soviet dissidents, which caused an uproar among the American delegation at the Congress even though it also contained plenty of nasty comments about their own country and its various campaigns of internal and external persecutions.
Statement in hand, Mrs. Paley and Father Mayer made the rounds of the available dissidents, Andrei Sakharov among them, offering their support and demanding in return that the dissidents renounce U.S. atrocities around the globe. The Americans had anticipated that this was not going to be an easy task. Even before the Congress, the novelist Vladimir Maximov, author of Seven Days of Creation, had shocked Father Mayer with his retrograde view that “the Vietnamese and Communism would have dominated the world if the U.S. had not bombed and smashed Vietnam.” In other ways, too, the Soviet dissidents resisted the Americans’ blandishments. Sakharov explained patiently, “Our conditions here are such that you do not understand,” while his wife Yelena Bonner exclaimed, “Thank God for the United States.”
Mrs. Paley, a trouper, did not confine her lobbying only to vulnerable dissidents. In the section of her report printed in the Village Voice she relates how she, Father Mayer, and one Maris Cakars bravely challenged Alexei N. Stepunin, Secretary General of the Institute of Soviet American Relations, who reminded Mrs. Paley of one of her “condescending but lovable uncles.” They confronted him with the issue of Soviet dissent (while also troubling to reassure him that they did not agree with the dissidents’ political positions). The obliging Secretary General expressed surprise: he had thought they “understood that no one had said that the Soviet Union was a democracy. It was a dictatorship of the proletariat. They had no choice but to do what the proletariat wanted them to do. The proletariat did not want them to publish Solzhenitsyn; it was not interested in hearing from those second-rate poets with bourgeois longings.”
The clever Mrs. Paley recognized that this was a line—although she and her companions were “also very much against bourgeois longings.” The trio pressed their point more apologetically. After all, they explained, “we could not demand the freedom of the imprisoned Vietnamese, the Brazilians or Chileans or South Africans without including in those demands freedom for the thousands of political prisoners in Russian camps.” The Secretary General countered by telling them how much better things were now than in “Stalin times.” They agreed. As the Secretary General began to grow restive, Mrs. Paley prepared her final shot. “Alexei,” she began coaxingly,
Russia is powerful and rich like my country. It doesn’t have to worry about free speech, free assembly, free Samizdat, free underground papers. It can have all that, we do at home. We have had nearly half-a-million people at one time in Washington shouting protest into the windows of the White House and the Houses of Congress, and still our government does exactly what it likes. It has managed to bomb and torment the Vietnamese people for ten years. You too can have freedom of speech at home and continue to strongarm Czechoslovakia. You can eventually have as many automobiles and street-corner meetings as we do and you can export terror instead of containing it. It’s a question of confidence. You have no confidence in your true strength.
And how did the Secretary General respond to this extraordinary analysis? Mrs. Paley reports with some pride that he looked at her “with a wondering expression and then he threw his head back and laughed a first-class Russian basso laugh.” One can just imagine what a deeply satisfying laugh this outburst of raffish schoolgirl effrontery afforded the lovable Alexei Nikolaievitch.
(Gratified by this response, Mrs. Paley improves on her theory with some follow-up thoughts that she may or may not have shared with the jovial Secretary General. “What pigs we Americans are,” she exclaims as if with fresh insight. “Not only do we consume one-third of the natural resources of the earth but with all that fat ease, at least one-third of the natural freedoms of man. Then we leave to the rest of the world awful struggles for food, warmth, and shelter, along with oppression and tyranny, their certain companions.”)
But alas, it was time for Mrs. Paley to return to the detested land of “bourgeois longings.” The first night back, as fate would have it, she and Father Mayer, loaded down with “gifts, bulletins, position papers, and final commission reports,” threw themselves into a cab which happened to be driven by a Soviet émigré. They began to talk. The driver admitted that life in Russia was in some ways easier. “You don’t have to worry about every dollar.” But here, he continued, “he could live a different life if he wanted, any kind of life, it was up to him, he liked that, now he was used to it.” Mrs. Paley judges this incident to be “an appropriate and moral end” to her Moscow journey but, perhaps uneasy that the cabdriver has tipped the scales of judgment in the wrong direction, she does not let the matter end here:
The Russian dissidents who come to the United States nowadays are all called émigrés (by themselves, the media, the U.S. government), a French word whose meaning includes the idea of class. Those tens of thousands of others thrown up out of steerage, stored and stacked in tenements of Delancey Street and Rivington Street, were called immigrants, another class. Yet they too came here for the shining pleasures of the First Amendment. Under cover of that brightness, talking all the time, their children have paid taxes for death and silences in other parts of the world. The émigrés will have to know that.
This, from one just returned from the very heart of death and silences.
For the most part, Mrs. Paley’s brand of activism has aroused as much admiration as her fiction. “A Woman of Principle” went the headline of a Time box accompanying the review of her most recent collection. “These Four Women Could Save Your Life” was the title of a piece on her and three other anti-nuclear activists; an adjoining photo of Mrs. Paley had her looking like a visionary, eyes flashing into the distance. Interviewers are agreeably impressed with her sweetly untidy appearance, and see a connection between her warm womanliness and her politics: “It’s this pleasure in caring for others,” one has suggested, “that makes her activism seem so undogmatic and natural, a lyrical extension of the kind of work women have always done.” Critics marvel at the six or so days she has spent in jail and at the risks she has taken in signing documents that might have brought federal prosecution.
Critics also find interesting links between her art and her politics. “Start by trying to save a few lives on paper, and you might end an activist like Paley, protesting the waste of lives in the Vietnam war,” goes one clever analysis. The critic for the New York Times Book Review calls Mrs. Paley “one of the few who write about people who actually believe in things passionately (for example, feminism, helping the poor, civil rights) and say so. . . . This is fiction of consequence.” Publishers Weekly relates admiringly how Mrs. Paley’s stories “show political commitment to humanitarian causes ‘as part of ordinary people’s lives.’ ”
Mrs. Paley herself proudly allows that her writing has grown more political over the years, that her characters are now seen to be living and talking their activism: “how to save the world—and quickly.” And she has always readily admitted that her political commitments have affected the quantity of her output (“I’m easily distractable”). But the influence her politics has had on her work goes beyond relative superficialities like these right to the very substance and form of her imagination (as the Marxists might have told us), and shows how a writer of some ability can founder on the shoals of ideology.
In one of Mrs. Paley’s stories, the heroine, a writer, has a conversation with her father about the nature of her craft. The father pleads with her to write a straightforward story in the manner of Chekhov, with recognizable characters, with beginning, middle, and end, the whole informed by a tragic sense of life. But the heroine, who is clearly Mrs. Paley herself, defends her quirky, elliptical, inconclusive, plotless style as proffering more hope. “Everyone, real or imagined, deserves the open destiny of life,” she declares. Her idea seems to be that the Chekhovian style forecloses life’s possibilities, while writing like her own, full of whimsical condensations and lacunae, keeps them alive. This is probably the way she means her art to make “justice in the world,” as she has put it—to preserve by the imaginative act the open destiny that life itself denies.
But in fact there is something in the working of Mrs. Paley’s imagination which does less to free than to confine. The notion of the open destiny even becomes itself a kind of tyranny, precluding choice, achievement, change, or progress. An example is the view of Jewish history that Mrs. Paley filters through Faith, a recurrent character often taken as her alter-ego. To Faith’s mind, Jews are meant to represent some quintessential idealism for the rest of the human race—the newspaper in the Children of Judea home to which Faith’s parents retire is entitled A Bessere Zeit, a better time; Jews are supposed to float free of the quotidian (upside down, perhaps, like the figures in the paintings of Marc Chagall). But the Jews of today, and especially in Israel, have defaulted on their charge, and so must be dismissed:
I believe in the Diaspora, not only as a fact but a tenet. I’m against Israel on technical grounds. I’m very disappointed that they decided to become a nation in my lifetime. I believe in the Diaspora. After all, they are the chosen people. Don’t laugh. They really are. But once they’re huddled in one little corner of a desert, they’re like anyone else: Frenchies, Italians, temporal nationalities. Jews have one hope only—to remain a remnant in the basement of world affairs—no, I mean something else—a splinter in the toe of civilizations, a victim to aggravate the conscience. . . . I hear they don’t even look like Jews any more. A bunch of dirt farmers with no time to read.
To continue to fire Mrs. Paley’s imagination, it seems, it is necessary not only to have been an underdog but to remain one.
Something similar happens in her view of women. Jews having passed the cup of pure innocence, women now fill in as conscience of the race in Mrs. Paley’s work. She condemns the “masculinist enterprise of war,” and the evils of the “man-owned state”—the Vietnamese orphan airlift, for example, is something only men could have thought of, she wrote in Ms. (When an experienced airlift worker wrote in answer that the operation had on the whole most certainly been executed by women, Mrs. Paley’s reply simply failed to acknowledge this point.) Her male characters tend to be self-absorbed, befuddled, childish. In “The Long-Distance Runner” (from Enormous Changes at the Last Minute), Faith says of men: “First they make something, then they murder it. Then they write a book about how interesting it is.” Mrs. Paley does allow men a necessary place in her world (mostly for having sex and making babies), but the really important connections are among women and children.
Yet Mrs. Paley’s conception of women seems to demand that they be (like the wandering Jews) at least somewhat unattached—single women bearing children, abandoned wives, welfare mothers, many “unmarried on principle.” Faith almost always has a man around, but it’s not always the same man. Other heroines lack men; some have men but no husbands, or at least no husbands of their own, and even in longstanding relationships the characters are casually unfaithful. It is as if, in Mrs. Paley’s imagination, secure marriage collapses the “open destiny” and somehow supports patriarchy, injustice, war, and nuclear arms. What marriages do appear in her fiction tend to be traps for husband or wife.
Unfortunately, the alternatives to marriage are also traps. Mrs. Paley’s characters may display movement, but their lives lack any distinct sense of development. In “An Interest in Life,” for example (from her first collection), a sexy young mother of four is flatly abandoned by her sexy young husband. She struggles in her tough, street-wise way with the single-mother welfare life and shortly takes up with a former suitor, now a not terribly contented family man. But she suspects that her hubsand will return one day, and at the story’s end she imagines what his homecoming will be like—a triumphant replay of their previous ardors, which got her into trouble in the first place. Similarly, Faith, from story to story, gets older and her children grow up, and like her friends she travels “around half of most of the nearly socialist world,” but she never really seems to change.
Even the idea of enormous changes at the last minute, the “anything can happen” feeling that Mrs. Paley’s admirers profess to find in her stories, turns out to be not really about change in the sense of progress or development or insight but about change as the pull of chance, time, age, impulse, lust, desire, fear, passion, and assorted other random pressures. Sometimes the enormous changes are fantastical (a child born of an older single woman and a young activist inspires a song which is “responsible for a statistical increase in visitors to old-age homes”; the middle-aged Faith pays a visit to the apartment she grew up in and is welcomed by the current occupant, a heroic welfare mother; the post-menopausal Faith contemplates having a baby). Sometimes the stories involve experiences that are too large for the people undergoing them, and too large for the author as well. In “The Expensive Moment” and “Ruthy and Edie,” radical mothers wonder about their children, though without any insight. In “A Little Girl,” an unhappy runaway is brutally raped by a degenerate and then dies gruesomely by being thrown or throwing herself out the window. Mrs. Paley uses a first-person narrator, a friend of the rapist, to tell this story, but neither she nor the narrator is able to make any sense of it, and “A Little Girl” remains simply a sensationalistic horror story.
Truth to tell, Mrs. Paley exhibits a grim determinism about life that is the opposite of hope. Occasionally she even acknowledges this tendency, while managing to make it seem like an asset. Counsels Faith: “It’s very important to emphasize what is good or beautiful so as not to have a gloomy face when you meet some youngster who has begun to guess” the bitter truth about life. A dialogue between Faith and her son Tonto (short for Anthony) also illustrates this tendency. They are discussing Abby—the daughter of Faith’s friend Selena—one of “that beloved generaton” of the 60’s, in this case wrecked by drugs. Tonto wants to know why Faith and Selena “never realized about Abby,” presumably meaning why they never saw her problems until it was too late. Faith offers what amounts to an excuse: “Listen, Tonto. Basically, Abby was O.K. She was. You don’t know what their times can do to a person.” (The “times” also form Mrs. Paley’s explanation for the fate of “those kids in the Brink’s case,” who, as she neglects to mention, incidentally managed to take the life of a bank guard as they were wrecking their own.)
Here we have an inadvertent literary insight into Mrs. Paley’s own temperamental incapacity to assign responsibility to individuals, which is something deadly in a writer of fiction. Perhaps it is because Marxist regimes view people not as responsible, accountable individuals but as variables, human “units” in some larger system, that Mrs. Paley feels such kinship with them. But no artist can really afford to see people this way, through the wrong end of the telescope. What “their times can do to a person” is simply an alibi, a way out of the task of understanding character.
Of course Mrs. Paley has her ideological sense of the importance of human individuality, but she cannot make this come alive in her work. In “Samuel,” a young boy, probably Hispanic, is fooling around with some friends while riding between two subway cars. A sudden stop is induced when the emergency cord is pulled by an older man, envious of the boy’s freedom, and Samuel falls to his death on the tracks. Samuel’s mother becomes inconsolable. Even after the birth of another child, “she immediately saw that this baby wasn’t Samuel . . . never again will a boy exactly like Samuel be known.” The message is clear, but Samuel was not actually ever known to us in the first place, because Mrs. Paley did not have the patience to fill him out.
Similarly, in “Faith in the Afternoon,” we hear the story of a woman afflicted, Job-like, with one awful punishment after another. The story seems intended to stimulate an awareness of the terrible vulnerability of the human condition, but the woman’s sorrow is never realized, we just hear about it. In the very same story, Mrs. Paley does achieve a moment of genuine pathos, between Faith and her father, but she turns from it abruptly (as her father turns from Faith), ending the story.
Thus the most enormous change at the last minute is Mrs. Paley’s way of copping out on her material, leaving the reader hanging with curious contrasts, baffling leaps, deep-sounding but puzzling last lines—all the truth falling through those empty holes.
Paradoxically, this self-appointed champion of little people manages to make their lives even littler than they supposedly are. It is not life that is so limited, it is Mrs. Paley’s imagination, an imagination formed and finally trapped by ideology and therefore entirely unable to make much of the world as it is, let alone suggest a means of transcending it.
1 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 211 pp., $13.95.