Enormous Changes at the Last Minute
By Grace Paley
Original and Current Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Kirstin Allio writes:
I first read Enormous Changes at the Last Minute in the period of high-wire, elucidating shock after the birth of my oldest child. I took the book off my husband’s bookshelf because I thought it was about me―the title described my state exactly. Early motherhood was a complete mutation. Each minute, as if it were the last, demanded my full attention, revelatory and exhausting.
The cover of my husband’s paperback edition is Hopper’s “Compartment C, Car 293,” a solitary young woman on a train, reading. Easy to imagine she’s about twenty-six, like I was. Outside, the shadows are long and there’s a wedge of greenish sunset. It’s a mostly green painting, at least greenly lit, and I imagined that this young woman’s mind was green, and fertile. I felt the picture epitomized what I had given up, having a baby. Quite literally, those early train trips between Providence and New York with a baby were the antithesis of the romantically private and ruminative travels I’d always relied on. I loved trains so much before I had children that I even loved the subway.
But Enormous Changes at the Last Minute turned out to be above all generous―accepting, inclusive, with humor―to new motherhood. And it made me realize that what would get me through those “last” minutes―minutes that could feel so desperate, dangerously untethered, and alien―was to try to express myself. At least to imagine that I was gathering and hoarding the minutes suspended or dashed in motherhood to use later.
Actually, I wanted to be Grace Paley. At the very least I wanted to meet her in a city playground among other slovenly-70s-poetry-cracking-tree-climbing mothers and hear her talk like she does in her stories. Here she’s Faith:
Just when I most needed important conversation, a sniff of the man-wide world, that is, at least one brainy companion who could translate my friendly language into his tongue of undying carnal love, I was forced to lounge in our neighborhood park, surrounded by children.
All the children were there. Among the trees, in the arms of statues, toes in the grass, they hopped in and out of dog shit and dug tunnels into mole holes. Wherever the children ran, their mothers stopped to talk.
One after another (so that I can’t quite bear to read them all at once), the stories in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute are hold-your-breath acts of compression. And they’re physical, like dancing drunk used to feel, inspired, at once fluent and careening.
“Why don’t you go to Israel?” asked Charles. “That would at least make sense to people.”
“And leave you?” she asked, tears in her eyes at the thought of them all alone, wrecking their lives on the shoals of every day, without her tearful gaze attending.
Why does that work? In this mildly exasperated, seemingly rote and kitcheny exchange there is humor and comfort like the chorus of a song you know every word of, and a panoramic point of view that also manages to feel so intimate it’s like being inside a locket. How does she do it? It’s tempting to say she’s found the intersection, the sweetspot, between truth and style. That is, big, universal truth and personal style.
In this way the vernacular becomes mythic: the world is made small, and our hearts, large.
These stories are beaded (there is certainly a folk art quality) with one generous, cozy, musically hospitable sentence after another. And yet I find the stories as wholes structurally impenetrable. I want to throw up my hands and say they work holistically in the way that life works, but of course they’re not artless, and I can’t imagine Grace Paley ever throwing up her hands. They’re conjured, and controlled. Back to the microscopic sentence: “At 8 months old their baby walked. I saw it myself.”
Indelible style―but no airs, or fakery. Life is life, like a naïf painting. Not childish, but true. There’s hardly any scaffolding or framing, just the voices out of nowhere, and everywhere, at once. What a sense of freedom!
Like this, Faith’s dad alone with Faith at the end of a rare daughterly visit to the Children of Judea:
“Your mother says Be polite, Gersh; I am polite. I always loved the ladies to a flaw, Faithy, but Mrs. Hegel-Shtein knocks at our room at 9 a.m. and I’m an orphan till lunch. She has magic powers. Also she oils up her wheelchair all afternoon so she can sneak around. Did you ever hear of a wheelchair you couldn’t hear coming? . . . How could I put it? That woman has a whole bag of spitballs for the world. And also a bitter crippled life.”
It’s pitch-perfect, without affect, but more: it’s like listening to someone do a stunning imitation of someone you know. Your dad, for example.
Reading these stories now, with more time for reading than I used to have, I’m struck by the elegant partnering of time and the material. I imagine a linguistic telescope that expands and compresses:
I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.
These are the economic opening lines of the first story in the collection. There’s the implication of a cityscape, urban planes and textures, and the tense counterbalance of “ex” and “new.” It continues:
Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
Twenty-seven years collapse into the colloquial, and Life is seen as a person. As if (it’s true, though!) a person is actually what life feels like. It’s both abstract, and emotionally practical.
The librarian said $32 even and you’ve owed it for eighteen years. I didn’t deny anything. Because I don’t understand how time passes. I have had those books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away.
Time passes in a twenty-seven year chunk, and yet the library is only two blocks away. Grace Paley/the narrator doesn’t deny anything: she is utterly to be blamed for her own existence, which makes her a sticky subject. Library books stick to her. Love does too. She is as culpable and as unknowing as we all are, if we’d own up to it. Her simple, everyday prose disguises soul-baring.
Back to motherhood, eleven years into it I feel like a native, and time is different. Those crucial minutes don’t sting like they used to. I guess I don’t own them quite as acutely anymore, either. Time feels more giving, and universal. Re-reading this collection, I’m less drawn to the park, the sandbox, the marching mothers, and more attracted to and moved by the final story, “The Long Distance Runner.” I read it most recently while walking during the quiet school day in my neighborhood in Seattle. I read and walk as a sort of protest of more current technology. Each house and yard (bungalow, English Laurel, chickens) I pass is a story that bleeds into the story I’m reading and helps me remember all the stories better, later. I think it’s how Faith feels when she sets off through her old neighborhoods.
A woman inside the steamy energy of middle age runs and runs. She finds the houses and streets where her childhood happened. She lives in them.
I haven’t lived in Seattle very long, but there’s no doubt that Grace Paley’s stories help me keep, and place, my own.
Kirstin Allio was one of “5 Under 35” in 2007: many thanks to the National Book Foundation! She is the author of the novel Garner, and numerous short stories, including one in the 2010 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. She lives in Seattle. (Photo: Michael K. Allio)
Fiction Finalists That Year:
- Donald Barthelme for Guilty Pleasures
- Gail Godwin for The Odd Woman
- Joseph Heller for Something Happened
- Toni Morrison for Sula
- Vladimir Nabokov for Look at the Harlequins!
- Grace Paley for Enormous Changes at the Last Minute
- Philip Roth for My Life as a Man
- Mark Smith for The Death of a Detective
Fiction Winner That Year: Thomas Williams for The Hair of Harold Roux
Fiction Judges That Year: Stanley Elkin, Elizabeth Hardwick, Richard Locke
The Year in Literature:
- The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
- Eugenio Montale won the Nobel Prize for literature.
More Information: Paley was a Fiction Finalist once more, in 1994 for The Collected Stories.