Lucy and Todd

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute – Grace Paley

In The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on February 5, 2012 at 4:26 pm

With her unique eye for the absurd, the ridiculous, and the sweet, and her amusing take on things, Paley effortlessly soars above the type of writing now streaming out of Creative Writing training camps.  Coming across her stuff in 2012, when we have come to expect less and less of writers, the originality of it’s striking.  Surprising no doubt to many, she suggests obliquely in one or two stories that writing takes time.  She was clearly a great cutter (as well as a great thinker), and took years to finish a story.  As a result, they’re a joy to read.  The setting is New York, and returning characters include Paley herself, or something like her, her inscrutable ex-husband, a smart-alec kid, friends, her mother, and most notably, her loving, vital, somewhat enigmatic father.

“Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” doesn’t seem the best story here: it gets a bit bogged down in worthiness, I thought.  The title itself shows all her talents though, and comes from a passage attributed to some guy in the story, who sounds just like Paley’s usual witty, almost zany, narrator:

‘The kids! the kids! Though terrible troubles hang over them, such as the absolute end of the known world quickly by detonation or slowly through the easygoing destruction of natural resources, they are still, even now, optimistic, humorous, and brave. In fact, they intend enormous changes at the last minute.’

The best story here, it seems to me, is “Faith in a Tree”, in which the political ruminations work in synch with all the human business (parents and children at a playground), not just for Faith herself (Paley’s alter-ego) but for her son, and a bunch of protesters in the park.  Paley stirs all kinds of ideas together here, and what comes out is a clever and moving condemnation of the Viet Nam war.  It’s exciting to watch, like the start of a bonfire.  It ends:

‘And I think that is exactly when events turned me around, changing my hairdo, my job uptown, my style of living and telling. Then I met women and men in different lines of work, whose minds were made up and directed out of that sexy playground by my children’s heartfelt brains, I thought more and more and every day about the world.’

Beautiful.

LE

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