Enormous Changes, Minutely Traced

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; $6.95; 198 pp.

GRACE PALEY is a great and neglected American writer. Her only previous book was a wonderful collection of short stories called The Little Disturbances of Man. It appeared in 1959 and immediately began to win its author a small but important readership. Now another collection of stories, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, has been published. It continues Paley's highly developed tone and diction at a level a little lower than in her first work but a lot higher than practically anyone else writing stories in this country today.

Grace Paley is a difficult and subtle writer. Her strengths are a peculiar quality and modulation of tone, and an ability to find the telling phrase--even her titles bear their own special attraction. Her sentences are dipped in a faint, pastel irony. Her narrators are people in the process of responding deeply, immediately, and with a fascinating restraint that molds it all into words. The hearts of her stories are less plots than the tense tracing of forces in some encounter--an encounter of people, passions, sensibilities.

And--what is perhaps most striking about Paley's earlier book of stories--it would be hard to find another writer who was more of a feminist writer, earlier, than Grace Paley, or one who is more feminine, in a sense beyond gender. Henry James's sensitivity, for instance, has something clearly feminine about it. Paley brilliantly explores an important set of attitudes toward love, friendship, sex. The paperback of The Little Disturbances of Man is subtitled "stories of men and women at love." The "at" touches the heart of these attitudes: a reflecting distance, a refusal to be swallowed up or entangled in love, but a constant keeping at it, despite difficulties, hurts, and humiliations. It is as if the old shibboleth of feminine passivity had grown into a kind of tolerance, almost stoic selectivity that helps make both men and women stronger.

These stories are concerned above all with a sense of certain moments, and the gathering up of certain moods that extend across longer stretches of time in the crystal of a phrase or incident. They are interested in little signs which one has to look at closely to appreciate. And the simplicity of the materials that make these key junctures is like the poems one of Paley's characters writes. A young black boy is speaking of his mother:

Just got too much pissy diapers


and wash and wash

just wanna sit down by that window

and look out

ain't nothing there

Paley is brilliant at noting small, important events. Preparing to make love, a woman in one of the stories "breathed deeply becuase of having been alone for a year or two. She put her two hands over her ribs to hold her heart in place and also out of modesty to quiet its immodest thud."

A similar insightful selectiveness guides the choosing of phrases and angles of description, like one heroine's thoughts on marriage:

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.

"Rock of his reasons"!--And what a wistfully true understanding there is in the new turn given to an old idea: life is short, for better or worse.

Or take the example of another female expressing the love she needs, a need for "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..." If men and women start out speaking different languages, then Grace Paley's voice seems one of the most effective translations, into the language of the short story, of that female dialect.

It is the same singular voice, the same personal tone that chooses words, metaphors, and even the situations of these stories. They are unusual situations: A middle-aged white woman goes back to visit the apartment where she grew up and spends several weeks with its current, black inhabitants. A group of mothers, complaining about insufficient protection in the park where their children play, put their gripes in a song before the relevant commission or committee, and so win their demands. A woman meets her ex-husband while returning library books and says "Hello, my life... We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.

"He said, What? What life? No life of mine."

Grace Paley's world, here more than in The Little Disturbances of Man, edges into dreaminess by the force of a whimsical tone, the sense of a playful personal force behind it. But perhaps the strongest story in the new book adopts a tenor which is totally different; it is set in a smoothed and poeticized version of a black janitor's voice, telling a story about a friend of his:

He went right to the park. Park is full of little soft yellow-haired baby chicks. They ain't but babies. They far from home, and you better believe it, they love them big black cats walking around before lunchtime, jutting their apparatus. They think they gonna leap off that to heaven. Maybe so.

And in this story the sexuality which runs close to the surface of the whole book becomes suddenly brutal: one of these "baby chicks" is forced and hurt. Afterwards "her life look to be disgusting like a squashed fish, so what she did: she made up some power somehow and raise herself up that windowsill and hook herself onto it and then what I see, she just topple herself out."

This is powerful stuff, dependent on the simplest and most subtle of word choices. These are stories to be read slowly and repeatedly, calmly and with consideration. That they have been written that way is evident in the confidence which glows through almost every sentence. Grace Paley's stories teach patience, and they demand a little bit of it--as a kind of collateral pledge--from the reader who would really learn from them.

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