Edith Pearlman, 78 on her last birthday (26 June, if you were interested), has become something of a cause celebre in recent years, her most recent collection, Binocular Vision bagging a shedload of awards and encouraging think pieces that decried ‘the system’ and worried about who else ‘the literary establishment’ overlooked in its hurry to print books by celebrities, and the children of celebrities, and the gardeners and neighbours and former lovers of celebrities. Now that the dust has settled somewhat, we have a new collection, containing 20 new stories, which would seem to suggest that her own celebrity has done little to derail a deep and abiding work ethic in Pearlman herself.
Readers of Binocular Vision, or indeed How to Fall, Love Among the Greats and Vaquita, her three previous collections, will have a good idea of what to expect here. Pearlman has what Cliff Richard once upon a time called ‘a roving eye’, and her stories range far and wide, even when, sometimes, they don’t stray too far from Godolphin, the ‘fictional wedge of Boston’ she created to house many of her (sometimes recurring) characters. Like Lorrie Moore, Pearlman is erudite, seemingly as at ease telling a story of email hoaxes as she is recounting a tale of four schoolgirls from the 50s who go on to marry (or not) according to a lonely widow’s off the cuff game. Like Richard Ford – particularly the Richard Ford of Let Me Be Frank With You – her stories exude warmth like tree sap. There is a rootsiness, a folksiness, a down home traditional quality to her storytelling that feels like the equivalent of a hug as you read. Does it veer into Garrison Keillor territory at times? Does the hug become overbearing at all? Very very occasionally. But for the most part, these are stories that come at you full of head and heart, Pearlman able to craft whole lives for her characters in the briefest of flashes, a skill that only a handful of living short story writers seem able to do (William Trevor, we are looking at you).
In the 20 stories we have here, a number take place in Godolphin, and a number revolve around an antiques shop, such that the events of one story can sometimes echo with the events of another. What makes the collection thrum, however, is the learning that Pearlman has picked up along the way – and so we are treated to tales like ‘Wait and See’ which concerns a young man called Lyle who, thanks to ‘a submicroscopic gift’, enjoys hyperchromaticity, and so sees more colours than your average human does. Not that Pearlman basks in the detail – although we do get detail; there is also time for a sweet love story, some back garden inventiveness and a sort of Prufrock-esque acceptance of the difficulties implicit in an extraordinary life. Pearlman, you learn if you didn’t know already, covers a lot of ground, fits a lot in, doesn’t waste a moment, doesn’t spare the horses. There are scores of examples throughout these stories that refute the example set by many a modern short story collection; Pearlman eschews a single type – instead, there are many characters who her constant readers will come to think of as ‘familiar’. Honeydew introduces you to pedicurists, teachers, nannies, anesthesiologists, widows, carpenters, shopkeepers, concierges – until you realise, Pearlman doesn’t have a type, her type is whoever she chooses to write about. She is unfettered, in a sense, her eye drawn to the tale she is telling and the characters required to tell that tale.
What’s more, she is as adept – as at home, as comfortable – engaging with big ticket issues, for example, stories about genital mutilation or bulimia (topics she engages with in a humane, sensitive, original and interesting way, it should be said) as she is telling light, comedic stories about historical novelists who dispute the extent to which they fictionalise history, as she is sharing short, possibly autobiographical pieces that ring with truth and send the reader off reminiscing about their own life highs (‘The Descent of Happiness’, included here, is a great first story to read if you have yet to dabble with Pearlman – it’s short enough to read in a 15 minute sitting and packs enough of a punch to have you thinking about it weeks later). Whilst Pearlman’s stories – or at least the stories collected in Honeydew – lack the explosiveness of some of, say, Flannery O’Connor’s work (whose stories thrum through the years, improving with every reading), she is undoubtedly one of the greatest writers of the form currently working. All the evidence you need is right here. She is adept with characterisation, with narrative, with long arcs and resounding, definitive moments. Her stories may eschew more formal experimentation but her mind is alive with ideas, furiously engaged with the world she has lived through and lives in. To read a book this good at the beginning of the year is to set a very high benchmark for 2015.
Any Cop?: An absolutely essential read for anyone who loves short stories.