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Rec Room: Austin Allen: The Little Disturbances of Man

Austin_Allen-small.jpg When people say they “can’t get into short stories,” the first cure I recommend is Grace Paley’s The Little Disturbances of Man. If they’re still hesitating—if I think I might get them to try only one short story for the rest of their lives—I place my bets on “Goodbye and Good Luck,” the opening piece in the collection. As funny now as it was when it appeared in 1956, it does more to sum up a world—and the world—in thirteen pages than the average Pulitzer-bait novel manages in five hundred. It’s also a very rare thing: a moving, grown-up love story. (Incidentally, its vivid celebration of Jewish immigrant theater in early twentieth-century New York seems to have inspired the opening section of Amy Bloom’s Away, one of my favorite novels of recent years.)

Other highlights of the collection include “An Interest in Life,” the last sentence of which is a bittersweet masterpiece, and “An Irrevocable Diameter,” in which Paley proves as adept at getting inside the heads of her male as her female characters. (Precisely because she never stoops to caricature, my gender always has to read Paley’s work with the unnerving sense that she’s got our number.) Throughout her work, Paley’s humor is relentlessly deflective of sentimentality and self-pity, cheerfully indomitable behind its mask of resignation. Here is Rosie Lieber, the heroine of “Goodbye and Good Luck,” when her now-elderly former lover tells her he is being divorced for adultery: “But, Vlashkin, you should excuse me, don’t be insulted, but you got maybe seventeen, eighteen years on me, and even me, all this nonsense—this daydreams and nightmares—is mostly for the pleasure of conversation alone.”

Paley isn’t exactly an obscure author, but it baffles me that she isn’t more famous than she is. Why hasn’t she been fully elevated to the American storywriters’ pantheon that includes Faulkner, Hemingway, Cheever, Welty, and the rest? Who wouldn’t rather read, or at least reread, “An Interest in Life” than Faulkner’s dour “A Rose for Emily”? And yet the latter still gets inflicted on high school students far more often than the former. If smart people stop enjoying short stories after a certain age, it may be because they’re trained to associate the form with more literariness, and less entertainment, than its best examples provide. And with that humorless, un-Paleylike kvetch, I’ll put my pet recommendation to bed for a while.

Bio: Austin Allen is an intern at Guernica. Read his last recommendation “here”:

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