In Ann Patchett’s introduction to Binocular Vision, she recounts her initial embarrassment at having come to Edith Pearlman rather late in Pearlman’s career – ‘How was this possible?’ – and she quotes Katrina Kenison, series editor of Best American Short Stories (which is where Patchett met Pearlman), who remarked, that ‘finding new Edith Pearlman stories year after year was one of the greatest pleasure of her job’. Patchett adds, ‘Edith Pearlman has been a secret much too long.’ Now, I’m normally sceptical about gushing editorial intros, but – and this is a serious statement, my long-standing and slavish adoration of Ann Patchett notwithstanding – she’s right: you’ve really got to read Edith Pearlman.
Binocular Vision is the ideal introduction to a writer new to her reader: a selected collection of older stories followed by a clutch of recent, newly anthologised pieces. The work here dates between 1977 and 2010; many of the older stories have been lifted from her earlier collections, How To Fall, Love Among The Greats and Vaquita; several of them have won major literary awards (she took the O. Henry three times!); and Binocular Vision itself, though new to the UK in 2013, won, in its 2011 US incarnation, amongst other prizes, the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. In short: dude’s got a pedigree and not without reason.
Her prose is beautiful: pithy, evocative and funny. Leafing through this book is like rediscovering Updike – the elegant sentences, the writer’s ability to pluck out grace from the mundane. The stories are set in Boston, Hungary, Israel, and across South America; they’re about wartime, suburban marriage, old age, friendship, and, above all, love; her characters are musicians, doctors, nannies, children, Jews, unbelievers, soup kitchen volunteers. Like Patchett, there’s a generosity of spirit here, that, while it doesn’t shy away from the tragic and the grim, eschews misery and highlights instead beauty and joy. There’s a much-vaunted adage that claims short stories must be about a singular moment, and Aristotle’s unity of time and space rule is pretty rigorously adhered to by the post-Hemingway crew, but Pearlman is particularly adept at concentrating an entire life – and, sometimes, lives – into a single piece, sketching out whole generations and careers and love-affairs with a brief efficiency that still refuses to skimp on emotion and detail. She knows what’s essential to tell each story.
Some favourite moments, then. The children in ‘The Noncombatant’, eating cotton candy for the first time: ‘When they came home their cheeks were laced with fine pink lines, likes the faces of alcoholics.’ The shock of unexpected marital dissent in ‘Toyfolk’. The wartime trilogy of ‘If Love Were All, ‘Purim Night’ and ‘The Coat’, in which Sonya, an American divorcee, falls quietly in love in wartime London and is unwittingly betrayed, but later finds another match. ‘A smile, or something like it, landed on his large face, and immediately scurried off.’ These stories, with their refugee Jewish children, musical emigrants, and enduring and optimistic lives, are as full as novels, as richly characterised, and never overstated. ”No longer young’, he said, sighing. ‘Still beloved,’ and she touched his arm.’ In ‘The Story’, Pearlman catches the unique awkwardness of a pair of badly-matched couples whose children have married one another and yoked the two families uncomfortably together. The title story, ‘Binocular Vision’, the last of the previously collected pieces, has a quiet set-up and the kind of revelatory ending that, in lesser hands, you might call a twist, but that here beautifully compliments its title and goes some way towards describing what’s so powerful about these stories: the way Pearlman makes different element of each piece speak to one another to create a resonant and multi-layered whole that isn’t overburdened or overbearing. Then there’s the beautiful and understated, and almost unconsummated love-affair of ‘The Ministry Of Restraint’, and the weaving of brutal realism and folk magic of ‘On Junius Bridge’, with its wide-open gut-punch of an ending: ”I could keep the boy,’ she heard herself cry. ‘No,’ he said, perhaps sparing her, perhaps turning the remainder of her life to ash.’
Any Cop?: Pearlman’s bound to be recognised as one of the foremost short story writers of her time. She doesn’t write in what you might call an experimental or ultra-modern vein – she’s nothing at all like, for instance, another favourite of mine, George Saunders – but this is high quality, sumptuous stuff. Seriously recommended.