BOOKS AND THE CULTURE Paley In Later the Same Day, her newest collection of stories, she approaches this “immense subject” in several ways, and all of them work. The landscape of her stories includes the political events and actors of our times: Chile, Chairman Mao, grand juries, Union Carbide. Most of her characters are themselves intensely concerned about human survival and human justice; for them, political activism is part of the rhythm of daily life and speech. In “The Expensive Moment,” for example, Faith \(the principal character in a number of Hegstraw, “the famous sinologist,” in which their conversations about Chinese politics are as important as their lovemaking: “Almost at once on rising to tea or coffee, Faith asked, Nick, why do they have such a rotten foreign policy? The question had settled in her mind earlier, resting just under the light inflammation of desire. Paley’s political focus seeps into even the most ordinary of daily activities: birthday wishes, conversations with the greengrocer, a walk home after school. In “The Story Hearer,” Faith discusses ironing: “I haven’t needed to iron in years because of famous American science, which gives us wash-and-wear in one test tube and nerve gas in the other. Its right test tube doesn’t know what its left test tube is doing. Oh yes, it does, says Jack.” In another story, Faith’s friend Susan flirts with a stranger she meets on the train, but her conversation as they leave Grand Central Station, “gabbing into evening friendship and, hopefully, a happy night,” is about Vietnam and the South Bronx. But Paley’s characters are not simply vehicles for a set of political beliefs. She once said in an interview, “I’m writing about how people live; if they’re political people, then that’ll happen, but if they’re not, it won’t.” More and more, her characters are political people, but their ideology is but part of the texture of their existence; we are engaged by who they are and how they live. Paley resolves Faith’s dilemma that of how to move beyond one’s own private concerns to address the larger world precisely because she does root her characters in their own “time and name.” We can feel her characters’ sense of the vulnerability of the world, Martha Boethel is a freelance writer living in Austin. “poor, dense, defenseless thing,” because we feel that same vulnerability within a single human life: Letty began to squirm out of Ruth’s arms. Mommy, she called, Gramma is squeezing. But it seemed to Ruth that she’d better hold her even closer, because, though no one else seemed to notice Letty, rosy and soft-cheeked as ever, was falling, already falling, falling out of her brand-new hammock of world-inventing words onto the hard floor of man-made time. LATER THE SAME DAY By Grace Paley Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1985. 211 pp., $13.95. In fact, Paley’s urgency about the earth’s fate is equaled by her urgency to tell the stories of the characters whose lives she shares. In “Friends” one of the richest stories I’ve ever read Faith comes home late one night after visiting a dying friend. Her 18-year-old son Tonto finds her at 3 a.m., “washing the floors and making little household repairs.” He sits down to keep her company; they talk; he makes a comment about Union Carbide blowing up the planet. Later Faith wonders, “And why to all our knowledge of that sad day did Tonto at 3 a.m. have to add the fact of the world?” Then she decides: He was right to call my attention to its suffering and danger. He was right to harass my responsible nature. But I was right to invent for my friends and our children a report on these private deaths and the conditions of our lifelong attachments. It is this balance that gives Paley’s work such deep integrity and authenticity. HER “reports” explore the most basic human themes: love and death, helplessness and hope, relatiodships among friends, lovers, parents, children. They are written with much humor, some sadness and, above all, great beauty of language. Paley has an extraordinary ability to capture whole ranges of feeling or experience within a few sentences; for example: My grandmother sat in her chair. She said, When I lie down at night I can’t rest, my bones push each other. When I wake up in the morning I say to myself, What? Did I sleep? My God, I’m still here. I’ll be in this world forever. Or this passage from the story, “Mother”: They sat in comfortable leather chairs. They were listening to Mozart. They looked at one another amazed. It seemed to them that they’d just come over on the boat. They’d just learned the first English words. It seemed to them that he had just proudly handed in a 100 percent correct exam to the American anatomy professor. It seemed as though she’d just quit the shop for the kitchen. I wish I could see her in the doorway of the living room. Paley’s ability to condense and to leap from one consciousness to another without losing the reader is the ability of a poet. One reviewer has described her prose as “a series of miracles of poetic compression.” Paley is a poet; she often includes poems within her stories, and her first book of poems, Leaning Forward, will be out next month. And it is as a poet in the most ancient and sacred tradition of poetry that she makes her fiction work at the deepest, most powerful levels to “save the world.” In the oldest civilizations, the language of poetry was literally the language of magic; words themselves, when spoken correctly, had power, and the function of poetry was to invoke and direct that power. Paley once read to a writing class I attended a statement on poetry from the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea: The mind, nanola, by which term intelligence, power of discrimination, capacity of learning magical formulae . . . are described, as well as moral qualities, resides somewhere in the larynx. . . . The force of magic does not reside in . . . things; it resides in man and can escape only through his voice. \(From Jerome Rothenberg, Ed., Through the voices within her stories, Paley performs “magic” in accord with such ancient beliefs. By speaking, by naming, she releases the power of words not only to preserve in memory a given reality but to help preserve the substance of the world. Paley’s writing is strongly oriented to sound and speech. \(She has said, “I words, the obligation to speak aloud and to name precisely are major themes in Later the Same Day. In “The Expensive Moment,” Faith tells her friend Ruth that she has mostly stopped seeing a man with whom she’d been 14 OCTOBER 11, 1985
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