Edith Pearlman's latest book is a collection of 34 pieces. (Jonathan Sachs / Lookout…)
New & Selected Stories
Lookout Books: 374 pp., $18.95 paper
I'll confess: I had never heard of Edith Pearlman before reading "Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories," a collection of 34 pieces of her short fiction going back more than three decades or so. That's on me. At the same time, had I been familiar with Pearlman for all those years, I would have been deprived of the great joy of discovering her, the thrill of coming upon a writer with an eye, and a command of language, so acute.
"My only challenge," acknowledges Ann Patchett in her charming introduction to "Binocular Vision," describing the experience of reading one of Pearlman's stories in public, "was to keep from interrupting myself as I read. So often I wanted to stop and say to the audience, 'Did you hear that? Do you understand how good this is?'" Patchett is not alone. As I made my way through "Binocular Vision," I kept stopping to read passages aloud to my wife, my friends, anyone who would listen. "Did you hear that?" I would ask them. "Do you understand how good this is?"
Patchett compares Pearlman to John Updike and Alice Munro, but a more accurate analogue, I think, is Deborah Eisenberg. Like Eisenberg, Pearlman crafts densely wrought, at times elliptical, narratives that avoid easy epiphanies; like Eisenberg also, she is comfortable with Europe or Latin America as a setting. Often, her stories revolve around a subtle dislocation, in which her characters can't help but be surprised by the world.
In "ToyFolk," an American executive, supervising the construction of a toy factory in Eastern Europe, meets a childless couple who cause him to reflect on his family. Yet when he discusses this with his wife, she unbalances him. "He's made other people's children his," she says of the man in the couple, himself a toymaker. "A reasonable alternative to the terrors of parenthood, some would say." Caught off-guard, rushing to defuse the moment, the executive offers an expected homily: "Well, we know better." Here, Pearlman lowers the boom on him, and us, as his wife fails to make the anticipated response. "And waited for her assent.... And waited," she writes in the story's final lines, leaving the situation open-ended, with her characters facing the awful realization that maybe what they have is not what they wanted after all.
That sense of unanticipated consequence reverberates throughout the collection. "The Noncombatant" takes place on Cape Cod during the last days of World War II, and involves a family engaged in its own war, with a father's cancer, which hangs over their small summer pleasures like the fallout from the recently exploded atom bomb. "Catherine's charm almost distracted him," Pearlman writes, describing the sick man and his wife. "How lucky he had been in her, and in their children, and in his work — and yet how willingly he would trade the pleasures of this particular life for life itself."
Such a sentiment is a hard one, but it rings with the truth of revelation, as Pearlman peels back the surface of the conventional and reveals the more complicated emotions underneath. This is echoed in one of the new stories, "The Little Wife," in which another couple, Max and Gail, pay a final visit to Max's old college roommate, ill with cancer also and only weeks away from death. Late one night, Gail comes upon the sick man and his wife talking, and, keeping her distance, imagines what they might be saying. "She tried to listen to the couple's soft, low conversation — she wasn't really a guest, after all; she'd been summoned to attend the dying, she had a schoolteacher's obligation to eavesdrop. But all she could hear were a few syllables that might have been, that should have been, that probably weren't 'love' and 'remember' and 'afraid.'"
What Pearlman is evoking is the difficulty of intimate interaction, the inevitable distance between even the closest human beings. Again and again here, in extreme circumstances or otherwise, people try, without ever fully succeeding, to connect. In "Fidelity," an aging travel writer begins to invent locations as a way of getting even with his editor, who once had an affair with his wife. The editor publishes these pieces anyway, out of obligation, or even guilt. Then the final article arrives in the mail, and its précis on the kingdom of Azula trails off into imprecations: "Soon the volcano will erupt or the earth crack open; or perhaps one hot afternoon we will simply fail to emerge from the river, will sink into that blue that never changes, unlike the fitful New York sky you and she watched those afternoons Greg you bastard."