I’m having a week of short stories – on Monday I wrote about Peter Stamm’s rather depressing book We’re Flying and today I’m reviewing the very different Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman, published by the highly regarded Pushkin Press.
Edith Pearlman has been writing short stories for many years (she is now 76), and although she has won various prizes and been published in prestigious journals, fame has eluded her. With Binocular Vision, Pushkin Press have published a collection of her work spanning the last 40 years. Having read it cover to cover, I must agree with other reviewers (including Anne Patchett, who wrote the introduction to the book) that she is a very fine writer who has mastered the art of the short story and deserves to be numbered among the greats of the genre.
It is the quality of the writing that marks Edith Pearlman out. Her elegant prose captured me right from the start – these stories are just so very well-written. She has a faultless style which sometimes brought me up short as I had to re-read sentences to allow their impact to sink in. But more than that, her range of subject matter is so vast you can never had any idea what the next story will be about.
It’s difficult to review short stories because you can’t write about every story in the book yet how to you select one to provide an example? I’ll focus on the first story, Inbound which gives a flavour of the Edith Pearlman’s style, and in fact “Inbound” is to my mind one of the best in the collection.
It concern a young girl going with her parents and her baby sister Lily (who has Downs Syndrome) to Cambridge Massachusetts to visit the Harvard University Library. Sophie’s father Ken is an academic who is already pushing his daughter in the direction of studying at his alma mater. As they walk through the gates of the university Ken points out the statue of John Harvard and asks Sophie,
“Would you like to live here some-day Sophie?”
Father and daughter go into the library and Sophie,
“her heart already low, dropped farther, as when some playground kid shoved her. Upright books were jammed shoulder to shoulder within high metal cases, no room to breathe, book after book, shelf above shelf, case following case with only narrow aisles between. Too many books! Too many even if the print were large“.
When they rejoin Sophie’s mother and the baby, her mother asks “was she impressed?“. “Awed”. her father says.
As the family returns to the town, Sophie get’s separated from her family at a traffic crossing and for a while is alone in the city. Rather than panicking, she finds herself reflecting on her life;
She would grow as large as her parents had grown. Like them she would study and get married and laugh and drink wine and hug people. Her life would be lived in the world, not in this paper house. She foresaw that as she became strong, her parents would dare to weaken. They too might tug at her clothing, not meaning to annoy. Lily would never leave her. She felt her cheek tingle, as if it had been licked by the sad, dry tongue of a cat. At full growth Lily’s head would be almost level with Sophie’s shoulder. Lily would learn some things. Mostly she would learn Sophie. They would know each other forward and backward. They would run side by side like subway tracks.
She finds her family waiting for her at the railway station, and sees her parents as everyday people, her father close to tears and her mother sitting wearily with little Lily. The parents don’t know what to say to Sophie, but Lily looks up joyfully and cries out “Phie!”.
In this extract it’s probably not possible to get across the way that the author has commented on how Sophie’s parents have failed to adjust their expectations to take account of the impact on Sophie of having a Downs sister. Yet in a few short sentences, we see that Sophie understands perfectly what her life will be like, academic or not, but definitely living forever in relationship with aging parents and her sister’s demands.
The book just goes on with insightful, finely-honed chapters in people’s lives. We read of Robert, an elderly man whose gay son comes to stay with the little South American boy he is adopting. The child has been brought up in an overcrowded orphanage and is underdeveloped both physically and mentally. Robert is full of doubts about the course his son has taken, particularly as he has recently broken up with his long-term lover. As the story develops we read of Robert’s struggle to reach the point where he can think of this unattractive, troubled child as his grandson.
In Settlers, a retired teacher lives in an inner-city area which is being repopulated by immigrant communities yet manages to find meaning and hope among his new neighbours. In the story The Non-combatant we find Richard, an army doctor returned form the Second World War severely injured. He moves with his family to Cape Cod and they try to settle into their new community, but the family relationships have been disturbed by Richard’s new role as patient rather than doctor and his wife is finding it difficult to cope.
Every story is infused with Edith Pearlman’s wry, subtle phrasing which provides an unobtrusive commentary on her characters’ lives. Her insights into human motivation are often startling and I was frequently moved. I began to wonder about the title, Binocular Vision: perhaps she meant it in the sense of looking the wrong way through binoculars so you gain a tiny intense vision of what you are looking at. That is certainly the effect her writing has on me.
As I read Edith Pearlman, I was reminded very much of Anne Tyler. Both writers excel in writing about people they know in a particular location (Tyler’s centre of gravity is Baltimore and Pearlman’s is suburban Massachusetts). But above all, they are both humanistic, overwhelmingly concerned not with showing off their writing style but expressing their interest in people, their development and welfare. You could almost use any of their characters as a case study in a counselling course; they both dig down under the surface of what people say and expose their motivations and their patterns of growth. I feel like I’ve discovered a new genius of the short story – but of course, like so many other people, I’ve just missed her as she did her thing in magazines and journals that passed me by.
While Edith Pearlman was in London promoting her book she made a recording of one of her stories on Soundcloud. You can listen to it here.