Grace Paley, one of my favorite short story writers, died on Wednesday, aged 84.
I came to her late. I had always believed the measure of a short story lay in the surprise offered by its ending; I was an avid student of the O’Henry-Saki-Roald Dahl school of the unexpected twist. Grace Paley made me re-think the pleasures to be found in the genre.
The short story in Paley’s hands is the photograph that captures an entire life. She conveys more in a single sentence than most writers can in a 500-page novel. Not much happens in her stories in the sense of big, dramatic, events, but all the same, Paley is a seismologist, analyzing the quakes of the human heart (the “bloody motor”, as that organ is referred to in one story). Her characters are ordinary, everyday people, rendered remarkable by the precision and the poetry of her language. In the title story of her 1974 collection, Extraordinary Changes at the Last Minute, she writes:
Alexandra, in the first summer dress of spring, stood still and watched. She breathed deeply because 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. Then they went to bed in the bedroom and made love until that noisy disturbance ended. She couldn’t hear one interior sound. Therefore they slept.
I shivered the first time I read that–and still do.
Add to her insight her inventive prose, her perfect ear for dialogue, her understanding of how individuals locate themselves and are located within communities, and, above all, her passion for her characters’ lives, and each of Paley’s stories seems akin to the eyepiece of a telescope–tiny in itself, but nothing less than a gateway to the universe around us. Do read this wise and wonderful writer’s work, if you haven’t already.