Monday, January 12, 2009

The Little Disturbances of Man, by Grace Paley

On the front cover of Little Disturbances of Man is a blurb from Philip Roth, who was one of Paley's first reviewers and likely secured for her an audience.

The blurb reads, "Splendidly comic and unladylike." Little Disturbances is, I think, less ladylike than her second collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, because it is more intentionally comic, more antic, more Catskill or vaudeville. It's also considerably younger, although Enormous Changes is more youthful, if that makes sense. Little Disturbances of Man seems to me to be about the way that life closes in on you early, while I remember feeling that many of the stories in Enormous Changes offered the hope of lives opening out again after youth has passed.

Of course, this development is not so surprising—this is, in some ways, the story of Paley's life. But what I mean to do by stressing a sort of opposition between the two collections is to question why these things go together, why a more comic, less "ladylike," younger sensibility produces stories about the constrictions of life, while a lesser emphasis on the comic (though Enormous Changes is still very funny) correlates with a sensibility that is more strongly a woman's and more open to seeing the moments that life's constrictions loosen a bit.

Some of the answers are obvious, but I'm not confident I can get beyond those quick, blatant answers. There's the rather ambivalent issue of maturity, which can be seen perhaps as a method of coping with life's disappointments by being able to recognize and appreciate the moments of freedom and possibility thrown one's way. Of course, maturity is also frequently seen as a coarsening, a disenchantment. I suppose I am interested in whether these two ideas of maturity aren't gendered to some extent, or whether their divergence arises from something else. Is it youth that looks at maturity as a state of worldly-wise disenchantment, and if so, how long does one hold to this view? When does one become mature enough to see maturity as something more than pessimistic detachment? Or do I have things backward?

I hate rhetorical questions, especially on blogs. It's a fairly lazy writing style, I think, so I'll stop now while I'm behind. But I am very interested in how youth/age and gender intertwine in writing, especially with regards to comedy or "comic" writing. Paley is an interesting figure to try this question out on, I suppose.

But as for the book, well, I love Grace Paley's work. I did like Enormous Changes better, as I felt that Little Disturbances was more a collection of writer's stories, whereas Enormous is a collection of people's stories. Little Disturbances is fantastic, but it feels as if Paley is always extracting her characters' dialogue from people she knew, dialogue and maybe situations which she would assemble into the stories she wanted to tell, which she fabricated. There is much more of a sense of the reverse process going on in Enormous Changes, of Paley finding whole-cloth stories and then translating them into her own idiom. Little Disturbances, for this reason, reads a little more jaggedly, as the jumble of registers which Paley has seemingly transcribed gets applied to her characters with some occasional mismatches or with slight inconsistencies, as if the sources were misattributed. This scrap barrel feel is wonderfully energetic, however, and a lot of fun to read. I particularly liked "The Loudest Voice" and "The Contest."


Richard said...

I've always meant to read Paley. I have her omnibus collection and haven't made it very far. Thanks for the reminder.

I'm curious about this injunction against rhetorical questions, especially on blogs. For one thing, your questions didn't strike me as necessarily rhetorical.

Andrew Seal said...

I find that rhetorical questions are typically used on blogs as a way to hazard assertions which would sound either very simplistic or very muddled if phrased as declaratives. It's a way of hiding the hole in one's thought, or the fact that there wasn't much thought to begin with. I'm guilty of both, I think, in the above entry.