Has there ever been an author like Paley?
A poet and essayist but primarily a short story writer, she functioned, before her death in 2007 at age 84, as a kind of conscience to the culture, an activist who saw art-making as political from the start. Before she became a writer, she was a committed localist, working to improve Greenwich Village’s parks and schools during the 1950s, when she had two school-age children of her own. This notion of community, and commitment, pervades her writing, presented in all its brilliant and elusive glory in this omnibus. Drawing from the efforts of a lifetime—the story collections The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and Later the Same Day; the book of essays Just As I Thought; and a selection of more than 30 poems—the idea is to showcase her versatility. But if Paley is a better fiction writer than a poet or essayist (her short stories are among the finest produced by an American), the result is to remind us of her vision, her consistency. As a writer, Paley stands outside the usual categories, blurring naturalism with postmodernism, straddling the old world and the new. The collection highlights that without belaboring the point. Look at the magnificent “Goodbye and Good Luck,” in which a spinster aunt confesses to her niece that she is getting married; “I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose,” the story begins. Or “A Conversation with My Father,” which opens with a request: “I would like you to write a simple story just once more,” the narrator’s aging father asks. “Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.” Still, try as she might, the narrator can’t hide the fact that this is the sort of writing, “the absolute line between two points,” she has “always despised…because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” For Paley, that’s the key to her perspective, regardless of the genre in which she works. “What does a writer leave behind?” George Saunders asks in his introduction. “Scale models of a way of seeing and thinking.”
Think of the pieces here as a series of scale models that together encapsulate Paley’s generous sensibility.