Thirty Days of Stories: Day Eleven

Title: A Conversation With My Father

Author: Grace Paley

Appears in: Enormous Changes at the Last Minute [1974]; The Collected Stories [1994]

Premise: An unnamed author and her dying father argue about styles of storytelling. You can read it here, or even better, listen to the British author Ali Smith read it on the Guardian podcast page.

Thoughts: I don’t recall where or why, but I know I came to Grace Paley because Charles Baxter was always going on about her and how great she was [he even scores the cover blurb on her Collected Stories]. And, as I’ve previously discussed in these posts, I’m a sucker for ‘Collected Works’ editions that present the whole of an author’s career in one volume.  I think it makes me feel better about my limited output, like ‘Hey, Grace Paley lived into her 80’s and this one 360-page paperback is the sum of her fictional career!  I can totally pull that off!” But I also find comfort and solace in dipping in and out of an author’s work, different points in their lives, by flipping the pages and stopping at random, or scanning the table of contents for a title that pings an echo in my mind.

Paley’s ‘A Conversation With My Father,’ is one of my favourite short stories [I should really spend a minute to compile them one day].  It’s a story about storytelling, about stories within stories, and about how we use stories.  The narrator’s father chides her for her inability to write a simple story like Chekhov or Maupassant, “Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.”

This idea makes the narrator uncomfortable but she tries for his sake [and why do most readers assume the narrator is a woman? There’s nothing in the text to confirm that]. She tells him a story about a woman he becomes a junky to stay close to her son, only for the son to clean up and abandon her. When her father complains she left too much out, she tries again, making the story longer and flowering the language but no more detailed. In the story’s final movement the father and narrator argue over whether the mother in the story’s life is over: the father sees her as a tragedy, the narrator chooses to believe the mother will change her life at age 40 and get a job as a medical receptionist.  The father responds in what are the story’s strongest moments, nearly begging his daughter to accept the tragedies of life, and how they cannot be negotiated with, asking, ‘When will you look it in the face?’

The story’s conclusion are when all the elements, after circling around each other, coalesce and tie together a theme and moral with a stunning subtlety: the father wants the narrator to accept that he’s dying, to relinquish the jokes and face the reality of their situation, but she cannot do it, she needs to temper the situation with jokes and cynicism and stubborn optimism; that’s why she argues that the mother will change her life, she wants to give her the happy ending she knows her father is already past, something her father views as an act of cowardice.  All this emotion and power in six pages, it’s incredible.

Paley’s word choices and metaphors throughout the story are impeccable, and will startle you with their beauty out of nowhere.  Paley started her career as a poet and ‘A Conversation,’ as with most of Paley’s work, bears a poet’s fingerprints. It’s a good thing to remember, that for as much as I’m reading these stories to learn things about structure and plotting and character development, adding a side of poetry into the mix can do wonders for my language and metaphorical thought.

Lesson: Read more poetry.

Favourite line:  “My father is eighty-six years old and in bed. His heart, that bloody motor, is equally old and will not do certain jobs any more. It still floods his head with brainy light. But it won’t let his legs carry the weight of his body around the house.”

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