‘A Subject Of Childhood’ by Grace Paley

Paley, Grace 1959a

A Subject Of Childhood by Grace Paley, 1959

The magic trick:

Using likely autobiographical details to create a fresh story utterly free of cliché or distance

Man, Grace Paley’s tone just immediately puts you into a strange, narcissistic world. You feel like you’re reading her diary, not fiction. But my reading experience of her stuff always plays out the same way. I’m put off. I’m annoyed. It’s too self-absorbed. Oh, wow, you just couldn’t wait to write about this so everyone could know how quirky and interesting your life is, huh? Wow, I just don’t see why people like her writing. Oh, wait. Wow. OK. Yeah, that was brilliant. The end.

Gets me every time.

I think the key is the realness. Yeah, it might be narcissistic to write about your own life, but they also do say: Write what you know. She very obviously knows this material. Nothing ever feels cliché or distant. It’s bold and fresh and individual. Ultimately, those advantages outweigh any feeling of self-absorption. And that’s quite a trick on Paley’s part.

The selection:

Richard found a tube of rubber cement in the bookcase and squirted it at Clifford’s hairy chest.

“I’m wild,” said Richard. “I am, I’m wild.”

“So am I,” said Tonto. “I’m the wildest boy in the whole park.” He tugged at Clifford’s ears. “I’ll ride you away. I’m an elephant boy.”

“He’s a lazy camel,” screamed Richard. “Bubbles, I want you to work.”

“Pretend I’m the djinn,” said Tonto in a high wail. “Giddap, Clifford.”

“Me, me, me,” said Richard, sinking to the floor. “It’s me. I’m a poison snake,” he said, slithering to Clifford’s foot. “I’m a poison snake,” he said, resting his chin on Clifford’s instep. “I’m a terrible poison snake,” he swore.

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