Enormous Changes at the Last Minute: Postmodern Humanism

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute: Postmodern Humanism

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"Enormous Changes at the Last Minute:" Postmodern Humanism in the Short Fiction of Grace Paley(1)


On the jacket of her second book of short stories, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Grace Paley, a feminist, postmodernist, antiwar activist, and writer, identifies herself as a "somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist." In 1979, she was arrested on the White House lawn for demonstrating against nuclear weapons, and her résumé is full of such protest-related arrests. Paley's statement in a 1998 interview with the online magazine Salon is typical: "Whatever your calling is, whether it's as a plumber or an artist, you have to make sure there's a little more justice in the world when you leave it than when you found it." Paley's fiction expresses similar sentiments but in rather subtle ways. Women in her short stories do not get arrested for protesting; instead, they visit their aging fathers in the hospital. (2) Paley's concern for justice appears in her short fiction as a postmodern humanism that works itself out in the establishment of storytelling, reality-making communities.

In "Toward a Concept of Postmodernism," Ihab Hassan schematizes postmodernism in opposition to modernism. This sampling of the catchwords he identifies gives us a window into the project of postmodern theorists: Antiform, Play, Anarchy, Decreation/Deconstruction, Antithesis, Absence, Dispersal, Anti-narrative/Petite Histoire, Indeterminacy (591-2). Postmodern writers, then, play with language, experiment with narrative fragmentation, introduce previously ignored voices, borrow heavily from both popular culture and "canonical" literature, and generally break boundaries.

How can we classify Paley as a postmodern writer if an ethical framework underlies her writing? Shouldn't she be trying to deconstruct reality and expose the meaninglessness of the American experience? Of course, no work or writer fits perfectly into postmodernism's theoretical agenda. For that matter, the very establishment of an unyielding definition of postmodernism is antithetical to its self-proclaimed turn away from the rigidity of modernist thought. For students of postmodernism this can be a maddening maze of deconstruction that eventually leads to the extinction of the study of literature. If, as radical deconstructionists might argue, our language systems and understandings of reality prove to be valueless, the scholar of literature is left with little to do, as is the social critic. It is for this reason that Hassan writes

Thus we can not simply rest-as I have sometimes done-on the assumption that postmodernism is antiformal, anarchic, or decreative; for though it is indeed all these, and despite its fanatic will to unmaking, it also contains the need to discover a "unitary sensibility" (Sontag), to "cross the border and close the gap" (Fiedler).

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How can one "close the gap" of postmodern theory? In another essay, Hassan proposes, "Perhaps we need to go beyond Irony (as Nietzsche sometimes did), beyond the current aversion to Wholeness and Meaning, to some working faith in What?" (qtd. in Davis 2). Gayatri Spivak's term for that working faith is operational essentialism (qtd. in Butler 325). She presented the idea as a tool for advancing the feminist political program, but it works equally well for postmodernists who are looking for at least a provisional toehold in their efforts to establish a normative social ethic. Grace Paley finds her provisional toehold in the power of storytelling to create a communal ethical reality.

In a 1975 symposium on fiction Paley explained, "People ought to live in mutual aid and concern, listening to one another's stories. That's what they ought to do" (31). Paley's characters do exactly that; they tell their own stories and listen to one another's stories. In "A Conversation with My Father," the narrator's father asks for a particular story from the narrator-a writer. The narrator of "Debts" explores the power of storytelling: "It was possible that I did owe something to my family and the families of my friends. That is, to tell their stories as simply as possible, in order, you might say, to save a few lives" (10). In "Listening," Cassie complains to the main character about her failure to tell Cassie's story. Other titles that reflect this preoccupation with storytelling include "A Man Told Me the Story of His Life," "The Story Hearer," and "Zagrowsky Tells." This concern with storytelling is a distinctly postmodern one; Paley's explorations of "the little disturbances of man" (4) -the everyday situations of life-allow her to experiment with narrative technique and the construction of reality and ethics as a communal event (Lyotard's petite histoire). (5)

Paley describes the subject of her writing-"life, death, desertion, loss, divorce, failure, love"-as "daily life." She continues, "And I'm very anti-symbolical. I don't write anything but what I'm writing about. I'm not writing about meaning beyond meaning" (34). Paley's familiarity with ordinary, everyday life and her liminal position as a woman in society allow her to explore everyday situations free from the oppressiveness of the modernist search for truth. In "The Pale Pink Roast," for example, Peter and Anna, formerly married, meet by chance in the park. They eventually return to Anna's new apartment so Peter can help her move in, and they end up sleeping together. After the lovemaking, Anna reveals that she has remarried, and Peter is dumbfounded: "You're great, Anna. Man, you're great. You wiggle your ass. You make a donkey out of me and him both. You could've said no. Why'd you do it? Revenge? Meanness? Why?" "Wait a minute, Peter," she says; "Honest to God, listen to me, I did it for love" (98). Peter is ever the visionary; he looks for depth, meaning, and symbolic significance in Anna's actions, even though there is no weighty psychological analysis included in the story. Ronald Schleifer writes, "the conversation is simply there, calling for interpretation rather than providing explanation." The story "eschews the egotism of meaning" and presents possibilities rather than definitive answers (34).

Paley is postmodern not only because of her attitude towards meaning, but also because of her metafictional technique. "A Conversation with My Father" exemplifies Paley's unconventional narrative style, but one moment in the story pins down the difference between Paley's narrative play and that of many other postmodern writers. The story is of a writer who visits her 86-year-old father who has heart problems. He asks his daughter (who is also the narrator of the story) to write him a simple story-"the kind Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next" (161). The narrator is receptive to his request but does not recall ever having written in that way:

I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: "There was a woman " followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I've always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all the hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life. (162, second set of italics mine)

This passage is a metafictional moment for Paley; like the narrator of the story, Paley explains here that she uses postmodern narrative technique not as a tool to express the meaninglessness of life, but as a tool to create hope-to create the possibility of "enormous changes at the last minute."

"A Conversation with My Father" continues when the narrator tells her father the story of a woman who lives across the street who became a drug addict in order to relate to her teenage son-also a drug addict. When the son gives up drugs and leaves his mother, the woman is left with an addiction and no son. The narrator's father, frustrated with the dearth of detail in the first telling of the story, demands to know about the woman's appearance, her intelligence, and her family background-crucial plot elements in his understanding of literature. The daughter tells the story again, elaborating this time to include details like the mother making chili once a week to feed her son and his junkie friends, but it still ends with the woman alone and addicted. The father observes, "What a tragedy. The end of a person." Actually, explains the daughter, "She's only about forty. She could be a hundred different things in this world as time goes on" (166-7). The father refuses to accept this hopeful ending-this "enormous change at the last minute;" Paley's story ends in the middle of their dialogue with the father's statement: "Tragedy! You too. When will you look it in the face?" This old, dying father looks for corroboration of his own reality, but the daughter refuses to give it: "I had promised the family to always let him have the last word when arguing, but in this case I had a different responsibility" (167). Like the narrator of "Debts," the narrator in "A Conversation with My Father" decides to tell the stories that might "save a few lives." Paley refuses the closure and finality of tragedy that the father sees; rather, she allows for the possibility and the hope of a new reality.

Postmodernists spend a great deal of energy exploring the relationship between language and reality. The mid-century linguist Saussure posited that meaning only arises from language in a public context; there is no inherent relationship between words and the objects they describe (Benhabib 112). The converse of that might be that reality does not exist unless it is expressed in language. In a stylistically postmodern essay on Paley and the construction of reality, Harry Blake writes, "Symbolical representation as the expression through words of the reality principle may have been valid in the past but present times demand that writers abandon the idea of working within this nonexistent reality in order to use words as a means of making up the real from the imaginary" (76). As a storyteller, this is indeed Paley's role-"to create a sense of reality where otherwise none would exist, even if only by speaking the characters' names." (Klinkowitz 82).

In the same way, Paley creates the possibility for social criticism in her stories. As in "A Conversation with My Father," her storytelling always leaves open the possibility for change. In an interview with Joan Lidoff, Paley remembers of her childhood, "Everyone would sit out on boxes and folding chairs and talk about in-laws, children, husbands, wives, what it was all about. That's what you listen for and expect when you're a kid: the next conversation will tell you what it's all about, if you only listen to it" (qtd. in Schleifer 35). Only if we listen to the stories around us will we find out "what it's all about," and because stories are rarely complete or completely true, finding out what it's all about does not mean finding out the Truth. In the communal listening and telling of stories, a social ethic, perhaps a provisional one but still an ethic, is built.

Faith, the narrator of "Listening," is in the practice of telling stories. Faith's friend Cassie accuses Faith of leaving Cassie out of the stories she tells. She is not offended only because she is left out; she feels her existence is denied when her story is not told:

Listen, Faith, why don't you tell my story? You've told everybody's story but mine. I don't even mean my whole story. You probably can't. But I mean you've just omitted me from the other stories and I was there. In the restaurant and in the train, right there. Where is Cassie? Where is my life? it's really strange, why have you left me out of everybody's life? (210)

Cassie makes it clear that it is not solely Faith's responsibility to tell Cassie's story, but she knows that being left out of the community's stories will change her reality (Aarons 2). This story corresponds with the political reality that the voices of women, racial and ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, and people of other nationalities have been systematically left out of the story. Paley uses these metafictional, reality-making techniques to open up her stories to other voices in an effort to create a truly communal morality. Victoria Aarons identifies the creative power of Paley's writing: "For Paley and her host of character-narrators, telling becomes the collective experience of bearing witness, the making public of personal mythologies, validating both self and community. Paley creates a community of shared belief and experience" (1).

Grace Paley has found a way to surpass the negativities and dispersals of postmodern theory while still taking advantage of the possibilities it offers for new forms of fiction. Paley refuses to totalize meaning and follow linear plot lines-"not for literary reasons, but because [doing so] takes all the hope away." In telling the stories of ordinary people, both Paley and her characters have constructed an alternative social criticism that demands justice but in such a way that it still allows for "enormous changes at the last minute."


Notes

1 Throughout this essay I use the term postmodern humanism. I am indebted to Todd Davis for presenting this postmodern possibility and for providing me with the terminology to explain it. Davis's work with Vonnegut's postmodern humanism has helped me define the parameters of my argument here.

2 See the title story from Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.
3 Hassan is quoting Susan Sontag, "One Culture and the New Sensibility," in Against Interpretation, 1967, pp. 293-304 and Leslie Fiedler, "Cross the Border-Close that Gap," in Collected Essays vol. 2, New York, 1971, pp. 461-85.

4 This is the title of Paley's first short story collection (1959).
5 In an essay titled "Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen: Radical Jewish Humanists," John Clayton writes that "it is our common life, our common pain, that concerns [Paley] In the stories of how many modern writers do we hear of collective experience?" (qtd. in Aarons 3). Davis writes of Lyotard's petite histoire as "provisional narratives that may serve as tools for daily, localized living, a contingent morality that is never grounded in presence but, rather, works with an awareness of its own constructedness toward a symbolic vision of a better reality" (3).

6 At the forefront of the postmodern literary scene, however, is Kurt Vonnegut; his use of postmodern narrative technique is more in line with Paley's than earlier Vonnegut criticism recognized. See Davis, "Apocalyptic Grumbling: Postmodern Humanism in the Work of Kurt Vonnegut."



Works Cited

Aarons, Victoria. "A Perfect Marginality: Public and Private Telling in the Stories of Grace Paley" Studies in Short Fiction 27.1 (Winter 1990): 35-44. MAS Fulltext Ultra. PALNI SiteSearch. Good Library, Goshen College. 26 Nov. 2000.

Barthelme, Donald, William Gass, Grace Paley, and Walker Percy. "A Symposium on Fiction" Shenandoah 27.2 (Winter 1976): 1-31.

Benhabib, Seyla. "Epistemologies of Postmodernism: A Rejoinder to Jean-François Lyotard." Feminism/Postmodernism. Ed. Linda J. Nicholson. New York and London: Routledge, 1990. 107-130.

Blake, Harry. "Grace Paley: A Plea for English Writing" Delta 14 (May 1982): 73-80.

Butler, Judith. "Gender Trouble, Feminist Theory, and Psychoanalytic Discourse." Feminism/Postmodernism. Ed. Linda J. Nicholson. New York and London: Routledge, 1990. 324-340.

Davis, Todd. "Apocalyptic Grumbling: Postmodern Humanism in the Work of Kurt Vonnegut." Forthcoming in At Millennium's End: New Essays on the Work of Kurt Vonnegut. State University of New York Press, 2001.

Hassan, Ihab. "Toward a Concept of Postmodernism." Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. Eds. Paula Geyh,

Fred G. Leebron, Andrew Levy. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. 586-595.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. "Grace Paley: The Sociology of Metafiction" Delta 14 (May 1982): 81-85.

Paley, Grace. "All My Habits Are Bad." Interview with A.M. Homes. Salon.com. 26 Oct. 1998. .

---. "A Conversation with My Father." Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. 1960. New York: Ferrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979. 159-67.

---. "Debts." Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. 1960. New York: Ferrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979. 7-12.

---. "Listening." Later the Same Day. New York: Penguin, 1985. 206-219.

---. "The Pale Pink Roast." Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. Eds. Paula Geyh, Fred G. Leebron, Andrew
Levy. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. 94-99.

Schleifer, Ronald. "Grace Paley: Chaste Compactness." Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies. Eds. Catherine Rainwater and William J. Schlick. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1985. 31-49.
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