In The Little Disturbances of Man, relationships between women and men are turbulent, mysterious, and frequently surprising. Grace Paley shows us couples who divorce but remain as intimate with each other as before. She probes the affairs younger women avidly pursue with older men. She gives us a perennial mistress who eventually marries the man she's been having an affair with for thirty years. Paley makes no judgments about her characters; she simply invites us to observe them. With wry, sly humor and keen insight into the way people really liveas opposed to how we like to think we livePaley's stories provoke rarely asked, potentially inflammatory questions about relationships. Why do men and women get married and have children when the result is a crowded house, a grouchy husband, and an overworked, desperate wife? Is adultery really so bad? Why is it both commonplace and universally condemned? Is it wrong for older men to have sexual relationships with willing young women?
Apart from the moments when sex brings them into harmony, the men and women in Paley's stories seem to operate at cross-purposes. The women want a man who will stick around, but such a man is nearly impossible to find. The men want women to be companions as well as lovers, but they don't want wivesat least not permanentlyand they certainly don't want to be bothered by children. The results of this impasse are melancholy as well as comic, insofar as neither the women nor the men seem able to rid themselves of desires that can never be satisfied. In "An Interest in Life," Mrs. Raftery economically sums up the situation for women when she says to Virginia, the narrator, "I don't know a man living'd last you a lifetime" (p. 84). After Virginia tells her husband she's pregnant with their fourth child, he leaves her, saying, "Oh, you make me so sick, you're so goddamn big and fat, you look like a goddamn brownstone . . . All you ever think about is making babies" (p. 95). Unexpectedly, Virginia agrees with her husband, blaming her "own foolishness for four children when I'm twenty-six years old, deserted, and poverty struck, regardless of looks. A man can't help it, but I could have behaved better" (p. 88).
To comfort herself and provide some hope for her children, Virginia has an affair with John Raftery, the married son of a neighbor. Raftery is kind and devoted to Virginia and her childrencoming closest to an ideal man in these stories. But despite Raftery's attentions, Virginia imagines her husband's return: "He got onto me right where we were, and the truth is, we were so happy, we forgot the precautions" (p. 101). Why does Virginia dream about the return of a husband who has treated her so badly? And why does she envision that they "forgot the precautions" after blaming herself for having so many children?
Freddy, the narrator of "The Contest," typifies the men in Paley's world. He begins a relationship with Dotty, who is content for only so long to be his lover but not his wife. Freddy finds himself frustrated that a woman, yet again, wants him to commit to a relationship"She said: 'Where are we going?' In just those words! . . . Apparently, for most women good food and fun for all are too much of a good thing" (p. 68). For Dotty, sex is enjoyable but it also gains her entry into Freddy's life. Once there, she tries to convince him to take their relationship seriously. When that doesn't work, she implements a plan that she believes will lead him to marry her. Concerning men, Dotty may well be speaking for all of the women in the book when she says of Freddy, "You live at your nerve ends. If you're near a radio, you listen to music; if you're near an open icebox, you stuff yourself; if a girl is within ten feet of you, you have her stripped and on the spit" (p. 69).
The contrary impulses within the characters, which Paley delineates with such a light touch, are implied by the title "Two Short Sad Stories from a Long and Happy Life," a brilliant study of single motherhood. Narrated by Faith, a mother of two boys, these stories"The Used-Boy Raisers" and "A Subject of Childhood"feature her ex-husbands and a subsequent lover, all of whom fail her in important ways. The ex-husbands behave as if they were additional children, while Clifford, the lover, is easily defeated by the challenges posed by her boys. Summing up her plight, Faith says, "I have raised these kids, with one hand typing behind my back to earn a living. I have raised them all alone without a father to identify themselves with in the bathroom like all the other little boys in the playground" (p. 139). As the title given to these two stories suggests, however, Faith's disappointments do not result in bitterness or hopelessness. Instead, she accepts the dissonance between her desires and the ability of men to fulfill theman acceptance that does nothing to lessen those desires.
The contradictions that energize Paley's stories usually go unresolved, which seems appropriate given the book's subtitle, "Stories of Women and Men at Love." The notion that her characters are at love, rather than in love, suggests that love is somethingone thingamong other things her characters do. It requires active engagement, much like work, and it is never fully grasped, neither in the sense of being under control nor in the sense of being entirely understood.
Grace Paley was born to Russian immigrant parents in 1922 in the Bronx, New York. She grew up in a neighborhood "so dense with Jews I thought we were the great imposing majority." Countless stories told by her father and aunts colored her childhood and provided material for her later writing. She grew up hearing Russian, Yiddish, and Englishno doubt contributing to her unique voice. Paley briefly attended Hunter College, married at the age of nineteen, and had two children. She soon separated from her husband.
Writing only poetry into her thirties, Paley published her first book of stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, in 1959, which was followed by two more highly regarded collections, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985). Her political causes manifest themselves in her stories, though they are merely one aspect of the richly detailed lives of her characters. Long an antiwar activist and feminist, Paley was one of the founders of the Greenwich Village Peace Center, in 1961; she considers herself a "somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist."
Paley's other books include The Collected Stories (1994); Just As I Thought (1998), and Begin Again: Collected Poems (2000). She has received awards and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She has taught at Columbia and Syracuse Universities, and currently teaches at both Sarah Lawrence College and the City College of New York, where she is writer-in-residence.