Review by Merridawn Duckler
Grace Paley’s short-story collection Later the Same Day (1985) is that rarity: a literary work that, 30 years after publication, feels more modern than ever. Paley, who passed away in 2007, was acclaimed in her lifetime, but it’s tempting to think that these days, she’d be lionized— as a feminist who doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of her choices, a socialist, an activist. Paley’s era-specific, voice-driven narratives turn out to be something beyond evergreen.
Some books we return to only to find disappointments and datedness, but with Paley, one remains a little awe-struck that she was able to get fiction published at all. When she emerged on the fiction scene, she was a radical thinker with a reputation as a poet. The poetic legacy appears in her prose style as she evokes character, scene and era in simple, stunning ways.
Take, for instance, these lines from the story “Somewhere Else”: “Joe was clearly impossible. He had been undisciplined in two countries. The younger people, with the ache of youth were eating all the cheese.” In this tale of American tourists in China, a lesser writer might focus on food, monuments, finger-wagging at cross-cultural differences. But Paley gives us the tourists’ inappropriate photographing of poor peasants and a cheese tray. Her fiction is true to life without being especially naturalistic, hyper-real in way that evokes the art of Duane Hanson.
Another story, “Friends,” is most striking when re-read today, when the very term “feminism” evokes waves of online discourse. A story such as “Friends” brilliantly s up, without apology, the daily concerns of women: illness, childbirth, divorce, romance, sex, jealousy, bickering as the ultimate stuff of fiction.
I’ve taught Grace Paley many times in my creative writing classes. My aspiring writers gravitate to her work. She writes what she knows: New York, Jews, activism, ethics, women “calling the children from play to receive orders and instructions,” men who are “true gossips.”
In Portland, Oregon, I may have only one or two Jewish students in a class. I notice what is “Jewish” in Paley’s but my students don’t seem to, which suggests that perhaps the most successful “ethnic” fiction, if we call it that, speaks from the heart to insider and outsider alike.
I take being Jewish very seriously. I like it. My first two stories were specifically Jewish. When I took a class at the New School this teacher said to me, You’ve got to get off that Jewish dime, Grace, they’re wonderful stories, but . . . The idiocy of that remark was that he was telling me this just as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and others were getting more generally famous everyday. He was Jewish himself, but he wanted me to “broaden” myself.
It was in the same interview that Paley observed: “I always say that racism is like pneumonia and anti-Semitism is like the common cold—everybody has it. I often meet it in this lovely Vermont countryside, sneezing away.”
Re-reading Later the Same Day most recently, I noticed a Jewish quality in Paley’s work that has little to do with social and political stances, however laudable those may be. Rather, I detected challenging, eccentric conversations and situations that to most Jewish readers won’t feel eccentric at all. In “Dreamer in a Dead Language,” for instance, whether the character Faith argues with her father in his nursing home, tries to avoid her mother’s impossible roommate, or races through the grounds while pursued by her worried sons, I somehow sense that Jewish readers, in particular, will think, yeah, we’ve all been there. We have to laugh. Our only other choice would be to cry.
Merridawn Duckler lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. She has an MAJS from Hebrew College, her thesis was on Emmanuel Levinas’s “The Pact.” She’s published poetry, with recent work in Poetica, Sugar House Review, and TAB: Journal of Poetry and Poetics. Her plays have appeared in New York, Arizona, Oregon, California, Washington, and Alaska. Fellowships and residencies include NEA, Yaddo, Squaw Valley, SLS in St. Petersburg, the Bertha Anolic Visual Arts Fellowship to Israel, others. She’s an associate editor at Narrative and Evental Aesthetics.