A Conversation with My Father by Grace Paley, 1974

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by Grace Paley, 1974

Grace Paley is best known as a short story writer whose work undertakes the socially realistic business of questioning patriarchal structures and celebrating the positive powers of womanhood. She employs techniques, however, that are more commonly associated with experimental, nonrepresentational fiction. Called by some critics an "experimental realist," the author draws on the sociology of metafiction to present pictures of women intent upon writing themselves into a validly accepted existence.

"A Conversation with My Father" is overtly metafictional in that it not only shows the writer at work creating her story but, in its collected form, features the author describing her intentions and naming this story's antagonist. For its 1972 appearance in The New American Review, a journal featuring much overtly experimental work by such innovators as Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, "A Conversation with My Father" is already sufficiently self-apparent, for the narrator is cast as a writer not only historically much like Paley but as one who is writing stories in Paley's manner as the narrative proceeds. But when Paley included the piece in her second collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), its theme was thrown into higher relief by the volume's disclaimer: "Everyone in this book is imagined into life except the father. No matter what story he has to live in, he's my father, I. Goodside, M.D., artist, and storyteller.—G.P." Placed as one of the book's concluding stories, "A Conversation" interrogates Paley's own manner of writing while explaining the necessary pathos of such activity.

Although the story's situation is not exceptional—a middle-aged daughter visiting her 86-year-old father in a rest home, where they discuss her career—Paley takes care to show how its real action is the creative and insightful use of language. As for any person that age the old man's health is an issue, but Paley's narrator engages the question with a startlingly physical image: "His heart, that bloody motor, is equally old and will not do certain jobs anymore." Yet it "still floods his head with brainy light," another striking image, and it is within these two contrasting views that the story's action takes place. Physically old yet intellectually quite sharp, the father presents a historical challenge to his daughter's flights of fictive fancy, arguing for factual necessity and moral judgment even as she tries to create characters less burdened by such fates.

A child of the nineteenth century and an immigrant from czarist Russia, the narrator's father has had success; in his daughter's words from a companion story, "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute," he saw the U.S. flag for the first time on Ellis Island: "Under its protection and working like a horse, he'd read Dickens, gone to medical school, and shot like a surface-to-air missile right into the middle class." In "A Conversation with My Father," however, he is present to argue with such metaphysically extravagant imagery and call for work not just more like that of Dickens but of Maupassant and Chekhov, for stories about "recognizable people" where the author can "write down what happens to them next."

This the Paley narrator resists. The notion of beginning with "There was a woman…" and following it with a logically deducible plot is something she and the real Grace Paley have sought to counter: "the absolute line between two points which I've always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life." Yet to please her father she drafts a story that has been evolving in her neighborhood, about a mother who in order to bond with and help her heroin-addicted son becomes an addict herself, and who is then rejected in disgust by the son when he cures himself and goes straight. Though not a Paley story per se, this piece—summarized in just 100 words—is cut from the same cloth as the volume's other narratives. None of Paley's stories, published or (in the manner of Jorge Luis Borges) described as if they were written and published (and thus eminently quotable), fit the style of Turgenev or Chekhov, as the narrator's father points out: too much is omitted, such as the character's looks, her hair, what her parents were like, and the situation in which her child was conceived. (Out of wedlock, he is told, and he complains, "For Godsakes, doesn't anyone in your stories get married? Doesn't anyone have the time to run down to City Hall before they jump into bed?")

A second version, several pages long and fleshed out in somewhat more traditional style, follows. Yet the father isn't pleased, because it still remains an essentially Paleyesque tale: quirky in its imagery, explosive in its insights, and open-ended in its implications for one's fate. The narrator tries to give her father the last word, a stern admonition that the character must be punished, but allegiance to the woman she has created wins out: "I'm not going to leave her there in that house, crying. (Actually neither would Life, which unlike me has no pity.)"

As an argument against male authority, the ironclad rule of history that determines a culture's voice and authenticates only certain styles of discourse, "A Conversation with My Father" sounds a stirring feminist call. Yet Paley locates her theme even more personally, for as author she does allow the father (her father, as the book's disclaimer states) the final word. "How long will it be?" the old man asks. "Tragedy! You too. When will you look it in the face?" The answer does not need to be spoken any more than the narrator need further defend her denying the inevitable death of her parent.

—Jerome Klinkowitz

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A Conversation with My Father by Grace Paley, 1974

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