Binocular Vision by Edith PearlmanAisles

Interested in Everything

Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories
by Edith Pearlman
Review by Mary Rechner

he characters in Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories are not, as in many contemporary stories, so wounded as to be abject, so flawed that they hover above the invisible line dividing farce and its opposite. Most of Pearlman’s people have solid educations, utilize large vocabularies, and are ensconced in careers, religions, neighborhoods, and families. Though some of the stories take place (both geographically and temporally) in places of great conflict and strife (Israel, post WWII Europe, a Chicago women’s shelter) more of them take place in intact cities and suburbs, and the pain her characters experience and inflict upon themselves and one another most often falls into the sadomasochism of everyday human relationships. Most of the stories in Binocular Vision are from Pearlman’s three previous collections, and were written over a period of forty years. Much has been made of the fact that Edith Pearlman is seventy-five, and before this book’s publication, “not famous.”

This year Pearlman was honored with a PEN/Malamud Award (for the short story) and Binocular Vision was named a finalist for the National Book Award. It is the first book published by Lookout Books of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, “marking one of the most auspicious publishing launches in history” according to the Washington Post.

I read Binocular Vision immediately after reading Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant (who was born in 1922 and has been writing fiction, much of it published in the New Yorker, for over fifty years) and was struck by how Pearlman and Gallant project a similar confidence, assuredness, and patience with the art of writing stories. Their stories neither open with grabby desperate hooks, nor rush to unfold. They share some thematic preoccupations, as well: displaced persons, the effects of illness on the sick person and the caretaker, various iterations of adult and childhood grief, and the vagaries of love.

Pearlman, in classic short story mode, disarms the reader. Her stories seem to be about one thing, when they are actually about another. In “Aunt Telephone,” the first person narrator (she is very young when the story opens) first admires the feminine bachelor Milo for his singularity, his ability to live alone (she hates groups). Pearlman traces how, over many years, that admiration turns into something like a crush, and then into envy (when Milo pays attention to a friend), into cruelty, and then dismissiveness. There is more than one moment of betrayal in the story, but as in life, it doesn’t end in betrayal, but continues to unfold. After the first instance of discord, the narrator runs away from Milo, only to see him half an hour later on her front porch; she acknowledges him with a wave.

Pearlman is a keen observer of groups, too, and the ways people belong and don’t, and how belonging can transform into exile. She is especially good, in stories like “Aunt Telephone” and “The Settlers,” at evoking the complexities of single people who maintain friendships with families: invited for summer holidays and parties, playing an important if peripheral role. As the family changes (kids grow up, couples divorce) the role is no longer needed, or worse, an embarrassment best forgotten.

Pearlman’s humor is sly; many of the stories are funny. In “Chance,” the “Torah Study Group” (a euphemism for a standing poker game) includes the narrator’s (again a young girl) father, the cantor and the rabbi, and the narrator’s mother, who is described as “a devoted convert, but she could not convert her transcendental profile. Even in the harsh glow of the lamp, she was, in the words of my nasty great aunt Hannah, a thing of beauty and a goy forever.” Many of Pearlman’s characters are Jewish or have Jewish friends. Most often, being Jewish is simply one part of the character’s milieu. When asked by The Jewish Week, Pearlman said of her characters, “I don’t consciously write about them; they just come out of me. I’m interested in Jews just like I’m interested in everything.”

As in Gallant’s work, in many of Pearlman's stories the horror of World War II is very much a part of the present. In “The Coat,” Roland and Sonya Rosenberg “had directed Camp Gruenwasser since 1945, but finally the place had been able to close, its last Displaced Persons repatriated to Romania.” We can glean that the year is 1949. Like Gallant, Pearlman’s stories remind us that there is nothing simple about the end of any war—that in fact, the effect of war doesn’t ever end.

On her website, Pearlman lists her obsessions: “Some particular interests of mine are inter-species liaisons; asexuals, who get scanted by writers; and accommodation—to circumstances, to personal limitations, to the claims of family, to place.” I found no evidence of inter-species liaisons, but many of Pearlman’s other interests are on display in “Hanging Fire.” Nancy has recently graduated college and attended a friend’s wedding, and she assesses herself on the Greyhound bus ride home: “She was not a nymph. What she did resemble, though, was a tutor—a tutor of German literature, say: the sort of fellow who used to hire out to young gentlemen hiking in the Dolomites.” I would say that this story is a perfect lesson in storytelling, in creating memorable characters (is Nancy asexual, or has she just not discovered her core sexuality?), in using dialogue to move the story forward, in using language in its most playful, lyrical, and economical forms, and in keeping the reader guessing, but describing the story as a “lesson” sounds like medicine, and “Hanging Fire”—and the entire collection—is more than anything else a pleasure.

Mary Rechner is the author of the story collection Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women. In the fall issue, she wrote about Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch.