Thumbtacked to the wall above my desk is a line from Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. It runs: “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” Paley could speak of “open destiny” with some authority. A writer to the marrow, she was also a mother, a rabble-rouser, and an inspiration. It must have been hard for her to imagine, working as a typist in the 1950s, that she would someday be honored as a national treasure. That the strikes against her (Radical; Working Class; Daughter of Ukrainian Immigrants; Woman) no longer seem like strikes is a testament to her trail-blazing.
But Paley’s most significant significance (to this writer, anyway) is her voice. In 1959, when vernacular prose and aesthetic refinement seemed like the opposed ends of the literary jumper cables – contact to be avoided at all costs – The Little Disturbances of Man crossed wires, and made sparks. Paley came on like a philosopher and a carnival barker, like a reporter and a poet (which she very much was). Her sentences met her friend Donald Barthelme’s criteria for greatness – truth, beauty, and surprise – without the slightest sign of strain. They could rival the richness of Ulysses while seeming as spontaneous as a shout in the street.
In “A Conversation with My Father,” for example, Paley’s fictional stand-in, Faith, tries to heed her Dad’s deathbed request: “to write a simple story […]. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.” She spins a story about a neighbor whose son becomes a junkie, and her father insists that she end it there. “I had promised the family to always let him have the last word when arguing,” Faith tells us,
“but in this case I had a different responsibility. That woman lives across the street. She’s my knowledge and my invention. I’m sorry for her. I’m not going to leave her there in the house crying. (Actually neither would Life, which unlike me has no pity.) Therefore: She did change. Of course her son never came home again. But right now, she’s the receptionist in a storefront community clinic in the East Village. Most of the customers are young people, some old friends. The head doctor has said to her, ‘If we only had three people in this clinic with your experiences…'”
Grace Paley died yesterday, at age 84, having battled breast cancer. But given the buoyancy of her spirit and her passionate engagement with the world, hers is not the kind of death that leaves readers bitter. Rather, it offers us a reminder of our own “open destinies.” I’ll be raising a glass to Paley tonight, and revisiting her remarkable body of work for years to come.