Grace Paley is a vital voice in recent American literature, or at least that is what I’ve been told. She also happens to be an author I have never heard of until the beginning of this year. That is not to say she is unimportant, but the circumstances in which we met have been most unfortunate. I selected to review her work because The Collected Stories is the only anthology we are reading in this class. I love anthologies, sadly I think it’s because of my dwindling attention span due to the iPhones—bite-sized dabs of fiction for the casual writer to digest in one sit before checking Snapchat for the hundredth time. It’s in my big red chair, at the end of another long day, that I finally crack open the used edition I have purchased. I try to ignore the $2.99 Goodwill sticker hidden under my college’s $11.99 one. Paley stands triumphant in the cover’s photograph, a small crow to her left as she sticks her thumbs down her cardigan pockets in the midst of what is likely a public park. With a number of Hallmark-ish story titles littering the table of contents—“An Interest in Life,” “The Little Girl,” and “Listening” being a brief sample—I am already preparing to brace myself for a slew of cliché tales about warm memories and garden reflections.
“In 1954 or ’55 I decided to write a story.” Dear God. The urge to check my snaps intensifies. “I had written a few nice paragraphs with some first class sentences in them.” Something could have happened on the social medias within the past three minutes. “But I hadn’t known how to let woman and men into the language—“ But there, there is where I actually pause for a moment. Perhaps it’s just been Evergreen’s reconditioning of my mind, or fourth wave feminism, or all the nonbinary friends I have made along the way; but something about this doesn’t rub right. “Women and men,” the gender binary, a thing that is beginning to become a thing of the past, all the way back to the far off year of 2011. But surely, this mindset of opposite genders is just a slight bump in the road on the path to enjoying Paley’s work, so I think as I luckily end “Two Ears, Three Lucks” for “Goodbye and Good Luck.” My hopes are quickly crashed. Because this is second wave feminism, girls vs. guys, paving the way for further waves down the road. While we should honor the past, we have moved past this mindset, probably.
“Boys are disgusting,” my friend Lynda says. We are sitting in her living room sipping tea, and she has caught me picking my nose. She dramatically stares at the ceiling in a huff.
“I’m sorry,” I say, wiping the armrest. “It was too painful to ignore.” Lynda looks down at her tea with a self pitying glance, stirring the hot liquid a bit with her finger.
“Men and boys… I suppose I don’t understand them,” she sighs. I can’t help but stare at her current hairdo. She has been experimenting with pompadour hairstyles. Combined with her black swing dress and the antique furniture scattered throughout, I can’t help but feel as if I’ve stepped back in time.
“Girls are so much nicer, and cleanlier. Like this one actress I know!” she snaps her fingers. “I have to show you.” She turns toward the Xbox by the television, and the act drops a little. “D-d’you know how to put Netflix on that thing?” she asks.
I shrug. “Don’t you? It’s your home.”
“Yes but… Kevin is in charge of the TV things.”
“I… guess I could try. Where’s the remote?”
“I-I don’t know… I don’t work the television, that’s a dude thing…” We sit there in silence for a moment. Lynda breaks it. “We’ll have to wait until my boyfriend comes back so he can turn it on,” she says. I take my turn to look up at the ceiling and I can hear her sigh. “I hope he gets home soon, he needs to fix the fridge too. I don’t want the milk to go sour or the corn beef to go bad.”
Lynda’s life is filled with pies, a cat named Faith, and a handsome boyfriend. She tells me how she hates her cashier job, and plans on marrying Kevin in her goal of finally becoming the suburban housewife she’s always dreamed of. Paley often wrote about this archetype, and variations of it, providing fresh insight from the at-the-time modern woman’s perspective, dealing with misogynist men whist simultaneously trying to find love in others. I finish “Goodbye and Good Luck” with a sour look on my face. The heroine has finally been chosen by her dream man, at the end of his life and at the fresh end of his marriage. A woman should have at least one husband before the end of her story, and Aunt Rose manages to squeeze one in, just in the nick of time, before morality knocks on the door. Thank God.
But this way of thinking—the necessity of romance, the binary divide between men and women—can I really blame Paley for writing about it? For writing just from the perspective of her world, that world of yesteryear? Perhaps “A Woman, Young and Old” will be a little more progressive. Paley is a feminist, her writing’s been called feminist, at least. Google “Grace Paley Feminism” and the first article will report that she had said to find the label confining. She still credited the movement though, saying “Every woman writing in these years has had to swim in the feminist wave, no matter what she thinks of it, even if she bravely swims against it, she has been supported by it—the buoyancy, the noise, the saltiness.”
“It’s very damp, clammy. You don’t want to go down there. Trust me. You’d get sick. Suffocating. Very nauseating. The smell of the clamminess and the mildew and everything. Whew! Smells unbearable. Gets in your clothes.”
We are entering the second hour of The Vagina Monologues. It’s terribly uncomfortable and I’m horrified at the thought that I might be the only one in the room that feels weird. I can only manage one hard swallow between monologues while everyone is clapping. Lynda turns to me before the next one starts up.
“This is so great,” she says.
“Oh, yeah,” I say.
She slaps my shoulder. “You just hate it because you have a dick.”
“Probably.” But why do I feel weird? The third wave of feminism is strong in the night air and I wonder if I do just hate this because I’m a man. What would that say about me? Perhaps I’m no different from all the other piece of shit men discussed in the play. I thought I was different. As a gay man vaginas aren’t actually a turn off for me, but the aggression in the play still makes me pee a little. I’m disappointed in myself; I thought I’d be better than this.
“I love women. I love vaginas. I do not seem them as separate things,” an actor recites. But of course this is the 90’s. Trans people are not actually people yet, in the mainstream eye. We can talk about damp cellars and coochie snorters until the sun rises but we are always only talking about women. My school—the same school that charged me $11.99—tries to change this with an additional series of student-written monologues slapped on the back, because Eve Ensler will sue everyone if we disrupt the pre-established flow of her play.
“To everyone who says my gender isn’t ‘real,’ FUCK YOU!” an actor shouts. Snaps applaud from all around in agreement as the actor goes on. If we include this one trans-inclusive monologue at the end of this problematic production maybe the damage will be undone. Another actor steps up.
“To all the ‘allies,’ of the LGBTQIAA community, FUCK YOU!” More snapping. More discourse. Another actor.
“To anyone who uses ‘gay’ as a bad word—“ and it keeps going. The audience continually expresses their approval and agree with one another as racism, police brutality, intersectional problems within the queer community, and every other conceivable social justice topic is swiftly blanketed over in a monologue that lasts a total of ten minutes. It’s okay that we’ve shown The Vagina Monologues because we have just undone all Eve Ensler—her transmisogyny, her binary views on gender, her apologist approach to a statutory rape—did over the past two hours. But why did we have to show it in the first place? Why are we reading Grace Paley? There is something off about all this. Perhaps Paley’s characters are comfortable in their gender binary, and perhaps others are trying to break its mold.
I couldn’t hold my desire down, and I kissed him again right onto his talking mouth and smack against his teeth.
“Oh, Browny, I would take care of you.”
“Oh, sweetie, please take care of the fridge,” Lynda tells Kevin as soon as he comes through the front door. He is carrying several bags of groceries on both arms, the blue handle of something poking out from one of them.
“What’s that?” she asks from her chair.
Kevin breathes deeply and sets the groceries down by his feet, taking off his jacket. “We needed a new broom.”
Lynda climactically crosses her arms and pouts. “I hope you don’t expect me to be the one sweeping, seeing as I’m the woman here.”
Kevin pauses from hanging his jacket on the coat rack. “…No?” he says.
Lynda blinks a few times, she seems let down. Another long ironic speech on equality lost to chance. “Oh…” she says. I peer at my friend as Kevin walks into the other room with the groceries. Maybe Lynda isn’t giving into the heteronormative lifestyle like I thought. Maybe she’s just lazy.
“The fridge, Kevin!”
“I’ll do it!”
Lynda has her problems, but we all do. I still like her. I cannot really get into Paley, still. Her writing is less “bouncy and fresh” to me and more akin to a pile of dry leaves, as brown as her photo on the cover. She is an important voice, but her words should probably be taken with a grain of salt. It’s easy to fall into the trap of forgetting that stories are not timeless, and they are bound to their respective eras. Paley is a piece of history, but perhaps her stories, among other pieces of work, should be kept in mind as relics and not held up to the progressive ideals of the modern day when we read them.
Bernstein, Adam. “Grace Paley; Acclaimed Short-Story Writer.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company, 24 Aug. 2007. Web. 17 Feb. 2016. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/23/AR2007082300858.html>.
Paley, Grace. “Grace Paley, The Art of Fiction No. 131.” Interview by Jonathan Dee, Barbara Jones, and Larissa MacFarquhar. Paris Review. The Paris Review. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.
The Vagina Monologues. By Eve Ensler. The Evergreen State College, Olympia. 13 Feb. 2016. Performance.
Paley, Grace. The Collected Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. Print.
Segal, Lynne. Once a Feminist: Grace Paley. Thesis. Birkbeck University of London, 2010. Print.