Lauren Groff, “Once” (McSweeney’s 49)


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Lauren Groff’s “Once” is a tiny story from McSweeney’s 49. Following the theme of this number of McSweeney’s, it is modelled after Grace Paley’s “Wants.” The very title of Groff’s piece, “Once,” echoes Paley’s original title, with a suggestive respelling.

“Once” is short (three pages), but expertly written, with clever metaphors and a rugged first-person voice.

A woman bumps into the mother of her ex-boyfriend at the beach, a beau from years ago that she had met while working at a country club. The narrator says the woman, who is now old and feeble, is her enemy. They exchange a few words, and the mother accuses her of having ruined her son’s love life.

The mother is a published poet, and the narrator grew determined to become a famous writer by visiting the older woman’s house years ago, when she was still dating the woman’s son. The narrator, now a published author, looks after two young sons at the beach and admits that she, too, would strive to protect them from “a questionable element” (p. 99).

One of the brilliant parts about Paley’s tiny short story “Wants” is a plumber’s snake metaphor to describe how the words spoken by the main character’s ex-husband dug into her and hurt her: “He had had a habit throughout the twenty-seven years of making a narrow remark which, like a plumber's snake, could work its way through the ear down the throat, halfway to my heart. He would then disappear, leaving me choking with equipment.”

Lauren Groff picks up this metaphor in “Once” by tendering a good metaphor of her own: “From the first, the woman had had the ability to send a single word whipping like a gyroscope across the endless floors of my mind” (p. 99). It is not as cutting as the plumber’s snake metaphor, but pretty good still.

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