It took me a while to find Grace Paley. A friend had once told me how amazing her stories were, but I never got around to them. Later, I skimmed one of her stories under the table during a class discussion— of that story. It didn’t exactly sink in.
Packing for a trip last fall, I threw a mass-market paperback copy (from the now closed Paoli Book X-Change) of her first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man, into my suitcase just because it was the lightest book I could find. I was truly surprised when I finally cracked open the pages about halfway through my trip.
Paley’s stories often make you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a conversation, slowly and fumblingly getting your bearings until, with a flash of realization, you find yourself in a fully-formed scene. Sometimes— often in the same stories— her narrators turn around and talk right to you, their voices insistent, pleading, cynical, or indignant.
Paley’s incredible ear for dialogue is what makes her stories so powerful. The sensation that you’re listening in adds a thrill to reading. Other times, it’s as if you’re being held hostage, sometimes uncomfortably, by a stranger’s intensely personal monologue. She does this not by writing exactingly about her characters, but by letting them speak in a flurry of words that sometimes barely cohere. The stories are filled with slang, jokes, and trains of thought that don’t explain themselves. But the way that words and narrative are muddled up by the people speaking communicates something intimate.
I may have never read Paley if it wasn’t for the coincidence that her book weighed an ounce or two less than the other books on my shelf. But I hope many more people find her books in their hands!