‘Listening’ by Grace Paley

‘Oh man in the very center of your life, still fitting your skin so nicely… why have you slipped out of my sentimental and carnal grasp?’

If I could only read one short story writer it would be Paley, whose stories, rooted in the immigrant experience of life in the Bronx in the 1970s, explore (as her obituary stated) “what happened to the women that Roth and Bellow’s men loved and left behind”. Many centre on a loose alter ego, Faith Darwin; in ‘Listening’, the last story Paley wrote, Faith’s sons are growing up (“trying the find the right tune for their lives”), her marriage is going through difficulty, she is involved with writing and activism, and is debating a new baby. The story presents the range of life choices opening up to people in the ‘70s and how this was both liberating and overwhelming – decisions on when to commit suicide, how to be a father, which arty sandwich to choose. Faith watches a young man cross the road and muses about his vitality. Her friend Cassie dismisses him as just a “bourgeois on his way home”. Faith responds: “To everyday life, I said with a mild homesickness”.

Her contagious, funny, beautiful prose is organic and highly personal; Paley was suspicious of plot and craft, preoccupied instead with how to be a good person, a good woman, a good citizen. The story ends with Cassie launching into a bitter rant at Faith that seems to suggest Paley did not feel successful in this quest: “Why don’t you tell my story? Where is my life? Where the hell is my woman and woman, woman-living life in all this?” Cassie owns the last line – “I do not forgive you” – not just the final line of the story and the collection, but revealingly, the final line Paley ever wrote.

In The Collected Stories (Virago Press, 1994)

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