A Conversation With My Father by Grace Paley, 1972
The magic trick:
Two stories for the price of one!
You know, I was told awhile ago to check out Grace Paley. I tried once. Didn’t enjoy the experience. Tried again. Still not a fan. I should’ve started with this story, though. It’s amazing. Now I see what all they hype was about. Now I should revisit those other failed, misunderstood attempts.
This story is six pages long and yet there is so much going on. It’s two stories at once. And no, I don’t mean that in the usual SSMT nonsense way – as in “Admire the vast subtext of ideas just beneath the surface of the piece’s main thematic structure.” No. I mean literally there are two stories here. The narrator’s aged and ill father asks her to write a story. She does and shares two different drafts of it with him (and the reader). It’s really good too! Like if the whole story was just the draft of the story that she shares with him, that would be a really good short story! But as it is, we can read it within the context of the larger story and pick and pull different ideas from each and compare notes and enjoy both stories in broader, more fulfilling ways. And that’s quite a trick on Paley’s part.
“O.K., Pa, that’s it,” I said, “an unadorned and miserable tale.”
“But that’s not what I mean,” my father said. “You misunderstood me on purpose. You know there’s a lot more to it. You know that. You left everything out. Turgenev wouldn’t do that. Chekhov wouldn’t do that. There are in fact Russian writers you never heard of, you don’t have an inkling of, as good as anyone, who can write a plain ordinary story, who would not leave out what you have left out. I object not to facts but to people sitting in trees talking senselessly, voices from who knows where…”
“Forget that one, Pa, what have I left out now? In this one?”
“Her looks, for instance.”
“Oh. Quite handsome, I think. Yes.”
“Dark, with heavy braids, as though she were a girl or a foreigner.”
“What were her parents like, her stock? That she became such a person. It’s interesting, you know.”