The Contest by Grace Paley, 1959
The magic trick:
Giving narration to the man but power to the woman
Get ready for Grace Paley Week here at the magic tricks site. If it all feels a little claustrophobic and self-referential, that’s because it’s a claustrophobic, self-referential world she writes. The density and what I deemed to be self-congratulatory prose put me off for awhile. But once you break in and understand that you aren’t meant to understand every phrase or reference, you realize it’s not claustrophobic at all. It’s expansive and exploratory. Hmmm. What do I mean by that? I’m not really sure. I guess I just mean that Paley is guilty of terminal autobiography that really doesn’t care about the reader, but in sharing her own life in her own unique voice she manages to explore feelings that you might recognize if you can crack the code. It’s worth it. Keep trying. Anyhow, let’s go.
“The Contest” features a strong-willed, fairly selfish woman named Dotty Wasserman. Funny thing is, she’s barely in the story. Freddy, our narrator and her boyfriend, dominates. He talks about Dotty a lot, talks about their relationship. But mostly he talks about himself. We learn about Dotty through him.
Even funnier thing is, he’s not maybe the best judge of character. His life is kind of a mess. So we actually learn about Dotty by filtering out his nonsense. We can build her up in our own minds any way we want – probably in a very positive light – as a sort of foil to him. Basically, if she toys with Freddy, uses him for a trip around the world and then rejects him, well, we figure, she must be pretty smart. It’s a lot like getting a portrait of someone as a photo negative. And that’s quite a trick on Paley’s part.
“No, listen, Freddy, you don’t take yourself seriously, and that’s the reason you can’t take anything else – a job, or a – a relationship – seriously. . . Freddy, you don’t listen. You’ll laugh, but you’re very barbaric. 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.”
“Now, Dotty, don’t be so graphic,” I said. “Every man is his own rotisserie.”
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