Book review: ‘Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories’ by Edith Pearlman
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.”
The title story features a different sort of fracture, as a girl uses her father’s binoculars to spy on the people next door. Only at the end of the story, after a tragedy she didn’t witness, does she realize that she has never known her neighbors at all. Even memory is conditional; in “Chance,” an adult narrator looks back at the year she was 15, when her parents hosted a Torah study group that was a cover for a weekly poker game. “Did it happen exactly that way?” she asks halfway through the story. “A deck of cards has fifty-two factorial permutations. … Fifty-two factorial is an enormous number. Roughly that many angels dance on any pin. Furthermore, two decades have passed since the night the rabbi’s three nines (missing the spade) beat my mother’s three fives (missing the diamond) in the first game of the weekly group. I would be wise to distrust my memory.”
Pearlman’s right about that, of course, but she also knows that memory is all we take away. For this reason, perhaps, she keeps coming back to characters and situations: an American named Sonya Sofrankovich, whose relief efforts on behalf of displaced Jews in London and Europe during and after World War II center three stories, or the residents of the fictional Boston suburb of Godolphin, who suggest a different sort of displacement, in which one generation succeeds another and we are left with our own frailty, our lives little more than “folktale[s], more or less.”
And yet, as much as “Binocular Vision” speaks to this displacement, it also contradicts it, in a sense. Although 18 of these stories come from Pearlman’s three previous collections, all of the pieces here have been exquisitely arranged to make this book. Themes recur; narratives speak to one another — the effect is not so much of a sampling as of a suite. Of all the remarkable things about “Binocular Vision,” this may be the most compelling, that it enacts a worldview in 34 precise and subtle movements, reminding us that if connection is elusive, there is nobility in perseverance, and that we are almost always greater than the sum of our parts.
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