1994
Sunday, June 10, 2012 at 11:27PM
National Book Foundation

The Collected Stories

By Grace Paley

Original and Current Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Matthew Eck writes: 

In an interview with Grace Paley, Ann Charters asked the following: “Some literary critics think that short stories are more closely related to poetry than to the novel. Would you agree?”

Grace Paley replied, “I would say that stories are closer to poetry than they are to the novel because first they are shorter, and second they are more concentrated, more economical, and that kind of economy, the pulling together of all the information and making leaps across the information, is really close to poetry. By leaps I mean thought leaps and feeling leaps. Also, when short stories are working right, you pay more attention to language than most novelists do.”

The truth of the short story is encapsulated remarkably well in that quote. The short story is indeed more closely related to poetry these days when it comes to that attention to language and the play between sentences. The best short stories should be read aloud, just like poetry. Paley blends humor and sorrow to create stories that resonate with loss and empowerment. Amidst the sorrow and humor, though, her characters rarely feel sorry for themselves.

“Wants” is the short story in the collection that I return to the most. I’ll admit here that I read the collection out of order this time. I read “Goodbye and Good Luck,” then I read “Wants,” then I read “A Conversation with My Father,” before turning to the others stories.

In “Wants” the lines leap with thought and feeling, tension and beauty. The narrator meets her ex-husband outside the library as she’s returning a pair of overdue books. They’re overdue by eighteen years. She was married for twenty-seven years. She checks the two books out again before she leaves the library. The books are Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and The Children.

The story begins:

“Hello, my life,” I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
He said, “What? What life? No life of mine.”
I said, “O.K.” I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement.

Her ex-husband soon tells her that the dissolution of their marriage can be attributed to the fact that she never invited the Bertrams to dinner.

She gives him a list of reasons she never invited them, a sick father, the birth of children, Tuesday night meetings for a time, and then the war began. The brevity of the list, like the brevity of many of her stories, masks the hardships and the horrors, the mundane and the magnificent, along with all that beauty contained in everyday life. Sometimes it all adds up so that dinner plans are forgotten or never made.

The paragraphs that follow are amazing. Two or three of her best sentences in the story appear. The closing contains that style and those eccentricities that mark many of her stories.

Her husband tells her, “You’ll always want nothing.” He leaves.

The narrator sits on the steps of the library and thinks, “But I do want something. I want, for instance, to be a different person. I want to be the woman who brings these two books back in two weeks.”

A few lines later:

I had promised my children to end the war before they grew up.

I wanted to have been married forever to one person, my ex-husband or my present one. Either has enough character for a whole life, which as it turns out is really not such a long time. You couldn’t exhaust either man’s qualities or get under the rock of his reasons in one short life.

Paley died in 2007. This is what Margalit Fox wrote about Paley in her obituary for The New York Times: “Ms. Paley’s output was modest, some four dozen stories in three volumes: The Little Disturbances of Man (Doubleday, 1959); Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974); and Later the Same Day (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985). But she attracted a devoted following and was widely praised by critics for her pitch-perfect dialogue, which managed at once to be surgically spare and almost unimaginably rich.”

When I read Paley’s short stories I recognize that when some writers are deep in a story language speaks to them differently. Paley’s stories make powerful leaps and loops while they keep us laughing and keep us wanting. 

Matthew Eck’s debut novel, The Farther Shore, was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 selection. Among other honors, the novel won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the Society of Midland Authors Award for fiction, and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. Someone should make a film of that book. Eck received his MFA from the University of Montana. He currently lives in Kansas City. (Photo: Katie Cramer Eck)

Fiction Finalists That Year: 

Fiction Winner That Year: William Gaddis for A Frolic of His Own

Fiction Judges That Year: Timothy Foote, Amy Hempel, Susanna Kaysen, John Casey, Randall Kenan

The Year in Literature:

More Information: Paley was a Fiction Finalist once previously, in 1975 for Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.

Article originally appeared on National Book Award Fiction Finalists (http://nbafictionfinalists.squarespace.com/).
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