Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Grace Paley: "An Interest in Life," "Goodbye and Good Luck," and "A Conversation with My Father"

If, as Amy Bloom says in her introduction to Grace Paley, "There is poetry and character, melody and dialogue in Grace Paley's work; there's not much plot," then how do we think more about structure's role?  What is the mechanism by which Paley's stories hold together?  What the hinges?  What the structural planes?
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  1. The story that is most like a “real” story (one with a more liberal amount of plot than the others in the three of hers that we read) is “An Interest in Life.” We follow the chronological events of the narrator trying to make ends meet with a brood of children and a husband who abandons her and the rekindled old romance between her and a married man. I say it’s chronological, but even in this story, the structure is a loose thing. At times, it was difficult to figure out when things were happening. To me, a good story is one that imitates the real world in its entirety, including all of the messy moments like in “An Interest in Life” where even the narrator doesn’t seem to know what’s going on, whether with John, her children, or her life. So this prompt makes me think about the question—does life have a plot? Does life have structure? Are the two synonymous? The plot is usually the means by which we see a clear structure, but it doesn’t have to be the case. Plots contain the action of the story, but the action is driven by the characters and their desires. In Grace Paley’s stories, it’s truly the characters that bind everything together.
    In “A Conversation with My Father,” I think Paley is saying exactly this. I’m not sure how autobiographical this is, how much of Paley’s thoughts and beliefs are in the narrator, but she writes, “’There was a woman…’ followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised.” And in the story, even as the narrator tries to write a simple, plot-driven narrative, she is forced to go deeper into the character of the woman she created, find out more about that woman’s life and motivations. With this story itself is about this relationship between a father and daughter, Paley offers commentary on writing itself. And it’s the narrator who’s doing the writing, spurred by the character of the father, that sparks the writing and the discourse about writing. So the characters are the structure; they exist and come in contact with each other, they respond to each other, and they do so in ways that make the story move forward by revealing new aspects of the characters.

  2. While Grace Paley doesn’t have much plot to speak of in her work, there is movement in the stories propelled by the characters. As Courtney mentions above, the story is the character and the character is the story. Grace Paley did not set out to write “An Interest in Life” thinking, what would happen to a poor mother if her husband deserted her? Instead she wrote of Virginia, a young mother whose scumbag husband buys her a vacuum cleaner as a goodbye gift. This story is not about an affair; it is about Virginia, who has an affair. There is no humdrum entrance into the story because this is Virginia’s story. It is a moment of her life and for nine pages she is going to let the reader see things through her eyes. She won’t introduce us; we’ll figure stuff out as we go along. The story is carried through her—from her husband’s present, to her encounter with Mrs. Raftery, to her affair with John, to her vision of the future. In a way, Paley’s structure is more fluid than, say, Alice Munro’s. Consider “Goodbye and Good Luck.” Rosie narrates the story of her life to her niece; she literally controls the story, reprimanding the niece and, by extension, the reader. More so than any character thus far, Rosie has agency. The daughter too in “A Conversation with My Father” is in control. She creates the narrative and corrects her father. Even she cannot contain her characters. Even after the narrator writes “The End,” the character’s life continues as she gets clean and gets a job as a receptionist. With such dynamics characters, the pieces cannot be confined to a plot map or story arc.

    Paley is noted for saying, “It is the responsibility of society to let a poet be a poet.” I would add to that credo that it is the responsibility of a writer to let their characters speak for themselves. There is a great freedom in bulldozing the restraints of a traditional short story and letting the characters breathe on the page. Of course, there is the danger of losing focus within the story, a sort of lost wandering when the character is not fully complete. Unlike Saunders, however, I feel that with practice (a lot of it) I could one day imitate Paley. The best piece I’ve written thus far had no true direction; I just sat and let the characters tell me what they needed to say. I feel like that moment when the character won’t stop talking is one of the most satisfying parts of being a writer. Paley’s characters aren’t tools, they’re partners. I like that. I appreciate that. For my next work I’ll try to mimic Paley’s structure (or lack thereof).

  3. I thought the structure of Paley's stories played an interesting role. The absence of plot actually made the stories seem more real to me because in reality things aren't always as easy to break down into beginning, middle and end, like they do in short stories. Endings may be open-ended, not all questions may be answered, but usually a short story, according to Mary Louise Pratt, wraps up into a plot that is easy enough to follow, easy enough to point out as a fragment of someone's life. But life doesn't always work like that. Sometimes, it's hard to tell when something started or to see when it was half way through or even when it was over. The difficulty to pinpoint beginning, middle and end of an action, event, etc. in Paley's stories makes it more like these real life situations. For example, in "An Innocent Life," Paley gives us a sense of the blurred lines of reality in the case of Virginia's marriage. She thinks her husband is leaving her, even though he claims he's leaving for the army. Yet she is sure that he left her, and yet just as sure, she believes that he is coming back. She still thinks this even after he's gone for two years, and though she thinks her husband is coming back, she starts sleeping with John. It's never clear whether her marriage is really over or not, so it's hard to tell whether this story really gave us a complete fragment (if my contradiction makes any sense). I guess what I'm saying is that even fragments still are still whole parts of a life. I'm not sure we get a whole part here. It's more like Paley is saying, "Let's watch Virginia from the time her husband leaves until when she starts sleeping with John, and don't worry if not everything in the middle is relevant."

    To me this seems like a more realistic fragment of someone's life than if Paley had focused just on Virginia's husband leaving. Because in real life we never have just one thing going on. It makes sense that while Virginian is dealing with being abandoned, she also has to deal with her neighbor telling her about some guy's wife dying, an old friend making advances on her, her kids being crazy, her nosy neighbors, applying for welfare, etc. I feel like if you literally took a few random days or months or years out of someone's life and looked at what happened to them in that time frame, I don't think you would necessarily get a beginning, middle and end to every problem they faced. You might get one problem that is halfway resolved, one that's just starting and one in its entirety, but looking at the fragment as a whole, it wouldn't be as clear cut or as easy to pick out as the plots in short stories usually are (no matter how crazy the story is).

    To me, the more realistic and lifelike nature to the structure or plot of Paley stories is what holds them together for me. I'm interested in them even if there isn't a clear plot because I'm curious about why we're seeing this time of the character's life. I wonder why we start when the husband leaves and end up with her assuming he'll just turn up. I wonder why we don't get cut off sooner or later, and why we don't start at a different point. I'm also intrigued by what else is going on in Virginia's life, while she is dealing with an absent husband. It's almost as if the reader is a fly on the wall, and whether something is relevant to her husband leaving or not, if it happens to her in the time frame of the story, we see it. For me, the story is held together by its good imitation of life.

  4. Reading Grace Paley’s stories, especially “Goodbye and Good Luck” and “A Conversation with My Father,” gave me the odd feeling of simultaneously moving a great deal and standing still. In “Goodbye and Good Luck,” I am aware of Rose’s narrative weaving around, but at the same time I feel stationary, rooted in the telling. What I mean to say is that, while I find myself carried along with Rose, I also have Lillie in the back of my mind the entire time, perhaps sitting at a bare table or standing in a doorway listening to the tale. Perhaps that’s just my overactive imagination, or maybe other people feel that too when reading Paley’s work – a sort of still layer beneath the surface of the narrative. “A Conversation with My Father” evokes a similar feeling in that it is a story within a story, the neighbor’s sad tale played against the backdrop of the narrator’s conversation. One of the most compelling aspects of the stories is that there seems to be something indefinite about each of them. When I look at the ending of “Goodbye and Good Luck” for instance, I get this feeling that I can’t be sure if what I just read actually happened to Rose, or if she really is going off to get married. Maybe she is or maybe she isn’t. And in the end, maybe that’s the point.

    The integral part of each story is the main character. As Alyssa said in her comment, “An Interest in Life” is about Virginia, who has an affair, not about an affair. This is what makes the story work without having what we might consider a typical plot or structure. The character is the story, or the characters are the story. The movement in the stories is directed inward on the characters themselves, rather than outward. This leads to a structure that, to me at least, feels very organic.

  5. When reading Grace Paley’s stories, I was a great deal confused, but at the same time… not confused? It was a weird feeling for me, because it always seems to me that when I’m lost as to where a short story is going, it’s more me losing track of where the plot is moving or who a character is or something along those lines, but in these stories, they seem to get lost in themselves and in the characters telling them. Through each story I felt like I got to know the narrator personally and, even though we do not get to see much action or plot within the other characters in their lives, we get to see how they have impacted them and the emotions they feel for each other.
    I felt this especially in Goodbye and Good Luck. While we do not see much interaction between Vlashkin and Rosie, we do not understand to what extent their romantic relationship persisted, we do not see his relationship with his wife beyond one scene, or really anything, what is important is that he matters to Rosie. She paints this picture to us, her reader (and niece) of this larger than life man, with his name on a tablecloth at restaurants and a wife with “a low bun, straight and too proud” whose speaks Yiddish with “each word cut like a special jewel.” Still, while there is not much action to tell us about him, we see this man who is high up on a pedestal to a plain girl like her. We see this, too, in John from An Interest In Life, a do-good man who is continually there for her, although all we truly see is him buying a doll and visiting the children.
    While you don’t see this sort of formlessness in most fiction, Courtney raised an interesting point here: life doesn’t really seem to have a plot. When we talk to each other and tell each other stories, we don’t know the ending. From one day to the next, things change, whether it is what we’re striving for or who we have feelings for or maybe even big things in your life like, for example, your deadbeat husband walking out on your family. And I feel like that’s what Paley achieves in this story. Her characters don’t know where they’re going necessarily, but they tell what they do know and think about what could be, and I find that very interesting here.

  6. I find that I have to disagree with Bloom on the first piece, "An Interest in Life", as it does have a fairly stable plot. The style of writing is a bit flighty, shifting between concepts and following the main character's thoughts in some places as opposed to forming a traditional narrative, but it does have a narrative. As I read more, I wonder if the editor who structured our anthology intentionally ordered the pieces in this particular order because "An Interest in Life" is the easiest to read. It gives us a taste to let us start to adapt to Paley's style of storytelling before dropping us into something with a wholly unique structure (if I can call it that).

    The other two pieces are an entirely different style. Actually, I find that "Goodbye and Good Luck" reminds me of a stream of consciousness piece, with the narrator moving through the conversation as thoughts come to her mind and filling in blanks, or leaving them, as she sees fit. It's horribly confusing to try and follow, yet it's intriguing. "A Conversation with My Father" is also exponentially worse. And I mean worse as in harder to read, not worse as a story, thought I do like "Goodbye and Good Luck" a bit more. Everything in these two stories is driven by dialogue and by character. The focus isn't on any kind of narrative, though there is some structure of a story in "Goodbye and Good Luck" if only because it is meant to be an aunt telling her niece a story. The characters are ultimately the thing holding the stories together, though it is their dialogue that is the meat of the story. Without it, there would be nothing here at all. The dialogue is the color of the story, everything we know comes from the mind of the characters and structures a story around them rather than around anything else. It's an entirely different way to put together a story, but somehow it's highly effective at getting a reader interested and pushing them to read through.

  7. When I was reading Paley's stories, I really could not predict what was going to happen. Not that I can do this for all pieces, or that I know what is definitely going to happen, but there is usually a feeling of 'yes, and then something like this will probably happen' But with her writing, I really was not sure. Strangely, it still felt like what happened was exactly what would happen if this or that character was there of if this (whatever it may be) is going on in their lives. The characters were so clear and defined in how they were, it seemed very natural, being weirdly unpredictable. Like Mrs. Raftery, I never know what she was going to say or how she was going to react, but by the end of the story I found myself thinking when she did something outlandish, 'you would say that wouldn't you, Mrs. Rafter!' and I was very surprised by this, seeing how at the beginning I didn't feel like I would ever understand the woman. I think that these stories are staying together with, instead of plot a wonderfully realistic set of characters, and that is what drives it.

    In Goodbye and Good Luck Rose is a very unique character. She is original and natural and not perfect. There is a sense of realness that we get for her. That she could have work as a ticket seller and she did have this offer. With this driving character, Paley can just have the events follow after them. There is no need for her to put any more thought in to have the plot should go, because life doesn’t have plot to it. If she wants to make this fiction as believable as possible, then she needs to spin the story like a life, not a story. This way she lets the character lead, so it feels like there is a strange structure, but it works because that person would have said and one theses things exactly as they are, because their character would not have them do it any other way. These stories and there structure are a result of Paley makes the characters as believable as she can, and because of this we can’t help but see and know that this was what must have happened. There is a sort of baffled understanding that comes over you when you read her stories, but it is a nice thing. It lets you remember what happened and who these characters are. It lets them become real.

  8. Although Grace Paley’s stories don’t have a whole lot of plot, there is still a decision to be made in each one. They do build suspense, because we are introduced to the character’s choices early on (Will Virginia sleep with John? Will Rosie become a “homewrecker?”) and they definitely build tension, because the characters are all in situations they can’t do much about but which demand something new to be done. Virginia’s husband has completely isolated her with her children--Rosie is forced to go back into novelty wear and feels old and fat—the narrator in “A Conversation with My Father” can’t please her father, he maintains that she’s hopeless when she wants to believe she isn’t. The way in which we get all this information is kind of just a cloud of humorous tension, but I think there’s an emotional arc to each piece—no matter what order the events come in or how few events and decisions there are, the characters start out feeling one way in their narration and come out feeling another way, and we can watch it happen through the instances and thoughts they choose to tell us.
    I like Courtney’s idea that these strange interactions between characters are what’s making us see all the different aspects and angles of Paley’s stories. “A Conversation with My Father” definitely revealed some things about Paley’s philosophy on writing, and I like how Courtney noticed that the characters literally are the structure here because they’re crafting the story through their own conflict and values.
    I think what’s really binding the stories together is a sense that something is unsolved with these characters. They seem hopeless and like they’re just puppets, but we know they’re not from the way they speak to us. So I guess the voice is what’s holding them together, because for me, the voice holds the emotional arc, and the narration drives us forward.

  9. The main plot of Paley’s story, Goodbye and Good Luck, is a conversation between Rosie, and her niece, Lillie. She is telling Lillie about her love life as a young girl, with a famous actor at the theatre where she worked. She talks about meeting him and loving him and losing him and rekindling the love centuries later after he has gotten a divorce. But, the actual reality of the story is this simple conversation before Aunt Rose has to rush off, presumably to her wedding. The most striking element of this story then, since it is not the plot, is to me the dialogue, specifically the language that Aunt Rose uses to describe her life and love and passion. Even in the first paragraph, Paley gives us a personification of Rose through her language when she says: “I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh”. This line was confusing at first when I read it. In truth, I had to read the first paragraph several times to understand the voice. What is confusing is the words: “says Aunt Rose”. This makes me believe that in fact, Lillie is narrating the story of the conversation, while Aunt Rose is telling the story of her life in the conversation. This intense depth of narration and characterization is really wonderful. But, plot is also present, in some way, in Paley’s work. It is the sub-plot, the story that Aunt Rose tells Lillie, that leads up to the present day of the conversation and the wedding, that give the story its meaning. It is the fact that “a lady what they call fat and fifty” went through these fits of love and loss and is finally having the wedding and love that she has always subconsciously wanted, that makes this conversation so important. She is telling Lillie to tell her mother, since Lillie’s mother doesn't seem to want to hear it from Aunt Rose’s mouth that her life has finally turned around. This background in the story is what makes the actual plot, the story telling, so important.

  10. I think that the most interesting story in the collection to me was Goodbye and Good Luck. I really liked the style and flow of the piece. It felt like I was Lillie, sitting down to listen to Aunt Rosie ramble on about her life. It felt very conversational, and drew me in like an old friend telling me an interesting tale. As for the structure of this story, I did get the sense of wandering present throughout. We follow Rosie as she gets a job as a ticket seller for a Russian theater troupe, and through this, we meet the interesting characters and their interactions with Rosie, especially Vlashkin. This story, like her other two in 3x33, are driven entirely by characters and the relationships developing and changing between them.

    In general though, I think that Paley does make use of some plot. I find that her characters always seem to begin in one place, and end somewhere else. In An Interest in Life, while it seems to wander, scatterbrained, on the surface, underneath we can see several threads of different plots all woven together, the plots of Virginia’s life as they all intersect at the moment of the story. There’s the start where her husband leaves her to “Join the army”, which reaches a kind of end when she assumes he’ll come back. There’s a problem with welfare, which gets helped along by the generosity of Johnny. That whole mess starts and reaches a kind of end in the affair. In Goodbye and Good Luck, Rose tells us her story starting before her theater job, and we make an uneven progression to the end, where she reconnects with Vlashkin her old flame.

    While her structure is certainly unorthodox—using small, tiny plots that combine into the greater plot of a character’s life—I’m not comfortable saying that her stories are entirely empty of motion. Far from it. Instead, her structure I think gets at the plot of life, per-say. Not a line between two points, but instead a wealth of lines between two different people.

  11. Even if there is very little plot, I think that there is some structure in Grace Paley’s stories. It’s in the way the timeline of the story moves. There may not exactly be the basic plot points – a clear exposition, climax, and resolution – but then again, real life doesn’t always do that as well.
    That’s what I think makes Paley’s stories so effective, even though there doesn’t seem to be some huge turning point or major change in the thoughts or behaviors of her main characters. They are just living their lives as best they can in unfavorable situations. They make their choices, but life ultimately goes on for them.
    For example, in “An Interest in Life,” Virginia is struggling to pay her bills while taking care of four children after her husband leaves with the excuse he’s joining the army. She eventually chooses to take an old friend, John, as a lover, but it is implied that no matter how much she might care for him, she will fall right back into her old patterns with her husband should he ever return.
    Same thing with “Goodbye and Good Luck” – Rosie just sort of drifts through life in the story, dancing around a potential romance with a handsome actor but refusing to be with him until he divorces his wife. I couldn’t really tell if they actually ended up married by the end, but I think it was the sticking to her morals and living with the hand she was dealt that was the point of this particular story.
    So there is a sort of structure in Paley’s work in the sense that one event follows another that follows another, same as it does in real life – and that should be included in all stories. Otherwise, you’d just get a crazy, mixed jumble of scenes, and I think that’d be very hard to pull off correctly and well.
    But plot seems to be optional – Paley’s stories work well enough without it.