By Michael Griffith
Given the ever-shrinking gap between today and the grave and the ever-growing library of Books I Might Love (Should I Ever Get to Them), I’ve come to see the utility, even necessity, of making bold snap judgements and sticking to them. But over decades of reading one is forced now and again to reassess, and sometimes to repent a rashness.
About most changes of mind it’s mind it’s possible to flatter oneself. One’s unexpected passion for Middlemarch years later needn’t be a goad to recall how stupid or loony one was in school; no, no, here is a newfound maturity of which to be proud. One’s crabby willingness to like a few of Raymond Carver’s canonical stories isn’t a fig leaf for small-mindedness doggedly clung to even after you realized you were wrong; instead it’s proof that you are beyond the hotheaded dissings and envies of youth, and are now willing to grant old Ray, safely dead, a junior membership in the Pantheon, where he can at least be counted on to put Henry Jame’s knickers in a twist.
Yes, most softenings or hardenings of judgement can be managed in ways that keep self-loathing at by. But then there’s my failure to recognize the greatness of Grace Praley, a lapse for which I can find neither excuse nor explanation. For twenty years, I just plain BLEW it.
I’d encountered Paley in the way I suspect many young writers do. She featured in the rhapsodies of trusted friends and teachers, so I dutifully read a story here, a story there—mainly short, elliptical, oft-anthologized works from her second collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. I didn’t dislike these stories; on the contrary, I found much in them to admire. I just never seemed to find them compelling enough to drive me on to the rest of her work. It wasn’t until last year, when several friends simultaneously recommended the first of Paley’s three collections, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), that I was moved to try one more time.
The story that made me recognize I was undergoing less a change of mind than a conversion was the only story from this book that I’d read previously, “In Time Which Made a Monkey of Us All.” But before I get to the story itself, a word about why I say “conversion.” There’s a minor, forgivable vanity, it’s always seemed to me, in the clause “I changed my mind”—as if it’s a matter over which we have control. One convention of the religious conversion narrative (and not coincidentally, also of the short story) is the epiphany, a flash of shocking clarity. But of course most epiphanies mark moments of change without being the moments in which the change occurs. Just as Joyce has always beaten his characters to their satoris, and the epiphany flags the catching-up of a laggard character to a fate long since prepared for him, so it is with Saul. We like to think that he becomes Paul on the road to Damascus; that explanation provides the solace and the neatness of chronological narrative. But in fact he’s only figuring out that he has already, and an indefinable point in the past, ceased to be Saul. He’s not changing his mind; he’s recognizing that God has already changed it, and is trying to ownership of the change. In a conversation narrative, nothing happens suddenly except the realization that you are not, and have for some time not been, who you imagined you were.
Which is the way I felt as I read—reread— the first paragraph of “In Time Which Made a Monkey of Us All”:
No doubt that is Eddie Teitelbaum on the topmost step of 1434, a dark-jawed, bossy youth in need of repair. He is dredging a cavity with a Fudgesicle stick. He is twitching the cotton in his ear. He is sniffing and snarling and swallowing spit because of rotten drainage. But he does not give a damn. Physicalities aside, he is only knee-deep so far in ham’s inhumanity; he is reconciled to his father’s hair-shirted Jacob , Itzik Halbfunt; he is resigned to his place in this brick-lined Utrillo which runs east and west, flat in the sun, a couple of thousand stoop steps. On each step there is probably someone he knows. For the present, no names.
I didn’t feel that I loved this—I felt that I had always loved it, that it wasn’t just music but my music, that anyone who didn’t love this—uh-oh, former self—was a moron.
Part of the appeal, to be sure, was what I’d liked before about Paley: the buzzing, teeming urban details, the insistence that here, too, in an endless and undifferentiable steppe of stoops, was art. An Utrillo Paris-scape, but one with gloppy sinuses and probing sticks. And, too, one knitted out with Paley’s fresh and flexible idiom, everything “framed in the syntax of surprise,” as Time magazine put it.
But though I’d all along admired the way Paley accommodated the hubbub of contemporary city life, the murmurous voices and the ever-proliferating cast and the overhead bother sensory and historical, I now began to realize that I’d been granting only crotchety half-credit. I’d liked this to a point, but beyond that I’d been skeptical. Her stories didn’t have the trim lines and sharp folds that I’d thought I wanted from fiction.
Why hadn’t I noticed before Paley’s nimble and unusual handling of narrative distance? That initial “No doubt” is both a declaration of confidence and an announcement that confidence is something that needs to be seized. The mixture of distance (“in need of repair”; “man’s inhumanity to man”; the Biblical allusion; the reference to Utrillo) and messy erlebte Rede (the Fudgsicle stick; the twitching cotton; the damnable “rotten drainage”) is remarkable . . . and even more remarkable, perhaps, is the way the distinction between narrator and protagonist immediately breaks down. The grandiose thoughts that seem authorial? Actually, we learn, young Eddied Teitelbaum is not only capable of framing such thoughts; he thinks in these abstract and abstracting ways all the time. And for all the appearance of ironic detachment and amusement, Grace Paley is Teitelbaum—a talented dreamer who’s sure that here, in these maddeningly familiar surroundings, adrift in a sea of stoops and house numbers, are the makings of an art (for Teitelbaum the “cockroach segregator” and later the ill-fated “war attenuator”; for Paley the newly reconfigured and invigorated genre of the short story) that will do good and last long.
But perhaps what I like best of all in the opening is the tone—and, once one learns how to hear it, the steadily chiming harmony between Paley’s tone and Teitelbaum’s. This is a story in large part about how and whether the engage with one’s home turf and tribe. The precocious Eddie believes that scientific detachment is the best tool for freeing himself from the straits and stays of home. How to handle intractable issues of race? “In the end, man will probably peel his skin (said Eddie) to favor durable plastics, at which time, kaput the race problem. A man will be any color he chooses or translucent too, if the shape and hue of intestines can be made fashionable. Eddie had lots of advance information which did not turn a hair of his head, for he talked of the ineluctable future . . .”
Here Paley and Eddie part ways—she’s wise to the vanity of declaring most futures void and one of them “ineluctable,” and the rest of the story may be seen as a cautionary tale about that kind of epistemological certainty. Eddie believes that if he pipes a stink bomb into everyone’s apartment through the basement conduits (the easiness of this another reminder of how closely packed and interdependent people are in such a neighborhood), then—so long as he undertakes the task in the pure spirit of scientific inquiry—the only possible outcome is knowledge. He commits the error of thinking he’s achieved the mythic disengagement one might call Laboratory Conditions.
One of the story’s chief pleasures is to watch Paley dance between detachment and attachment—an attachment wearing the mask of detachment, earnestness in the mummer’s mask of irony. As elsewhere in her work, there’s great good humor, but a humor backed—how could it not be?—with tragedy. When Eddie’s stink-bomb plan goes awry, he ends up in a home that’s part reformatory and part asylum, and when no good choices remain for him there, he opts—Paley couldn’t be clearer about this being his decision, and not an unreasonable one—for what the doctors, relieved to see their pessimistic predictions borne out, will call either madness of incorrigibility.
But back, for just a moment, to that opening and the things it sets up. Paley is patient, cagey, doesn’t divulge for several pages that the “hair-shirted Jacob” alluded to in the first paragraph, Itzik Halbfunt, is Eddie’s roommate and near sibling, his father’s monkey. The elder Teitelbaum owns a struggling pet emporium, the kingdom over which Eddie might one day have dominion.
How could he forget his responsibilities at the Teitelbaum zoo, a pet shop where three or four mutts, scabby with sawdust, slept in the window? A hundred goldfish were glassed inside, four canaries singing tu-wit-tu-we—all waited for him to dumb the seeds, the hash, the mash into their dinner buckets. Poor Itzik Halbfunt, the monkey from Paris, France, waited too, nibbling his beret. Itzik looked like Mr. Teitelbaum’s uncle who had died of Jewishness in the epidemics of ’40, ’41. For this reason he would never be sold. ‘Too bad,’ is an outsider’s comment, as a certain local Italian would have paid $45 for that monkey.
“Who had died of Jewishness in the epidemics”! The whole paragraph provides a brilliant reminder of the burden of history, the burden of family, of both the allures and the perils of forgetting one’s immediate context. It was Paley’s particular genius, I think, to realize that the spiritual/political requirements of midcentury like and the formal requirements of the new American short story were so similar. Concrete, bodily, vernacular details are not the things we shed to take on an identity; they are that identity, and must be engaged. We have no choice but to jump in and muck those stalls, get knee-deep or deeper in the physicalities, no matter how much we’d like to set them aside.
Michael Griffith is Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati and the author of four books, the most recent of which is The Speaking Stone: Stories Cemeteries Tell (2021)
Originally published in NOR 8