Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

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Review by Gill Davies

Pushkin Press first published this selection of stories in 2013, after its 2011 publication in the US. Since then, every critic and reviewer I’ve read comments on how extraordinary the stories are and how unthinkable it is that its author was not better known. Edith Pearlman had been publishing short stories in journals and literary magazines for 40 years, even occasionally winning prizes, but she was only “discovered” with the publication of this collection. Binocular Vision, her first book, came out in 1996 when she was 60. Even then it was almost accidental. A young American editor was starting a new press. He liked Pearlman’s stories and wanted to publish a selection to inaugurate it. The editor and author worked together to get a range of stories selected from the 200 or more she had written. The result is a collection to admire, savour and re-read.

What struck me first (and I was new to Pearlman too) was the perfect control she has of her medium. Each word is chosen with care, each narrative perspective sensitively explored, and each “plot” almost invisibly developed to its conclusion. Each story is a wonder of compact, vividly realised yet subtle creation. As in the best of the genre, the reader feels that the author is absent and they are navigating the fiction via images, metaphor, dialogue, pauses. Pearlman is especially good at using gaps and pauses so that the reader thinks they have uncovered the meaning /explanation/secret for themself. She resolves a story in such a way that you want to go back and read it again, to fill in the gaps of your understanding and see what you missed.

While technically so accomplished, I should stress that the stories are also fascinating, compelling and very varied. They range in time (World War II, the 1950s, the present), place (Central America, Japan, Israel, across the USA, London, post-war Germany), narrative position (first and third person), and mood (some are almost comic, others powerfully sad).  What they share are insights into and reflections upon human frailty and resilience. The characters and their situations include the mother of a severely handicapped child, survivors of the holocaust, teenage girls, several married couples in different states of happiness, and much more. 

Character is the foundation of all the stories. And character that is subtly established, occasionally only revealed at the end. If there are the traditional short story twists, they emerge from character not action. “How to Fall” is an odd story about a 1950s minor TV performer, formerly a tumbler and clown (hence the title). It details his previous life and employment but then the story turns out to be about a desperately sad life and includes an unexpected brief encounter that may lead to another kind of fall. “The Story” is about the annual meeting of the in-laws who have nothing in common. It draws an incisive picture of contrasting American middle class lives: Judith and Justin are severe WASPS, tall and thin; Harry and Lucienne are retired high school teachers, Jewish and fat. The contrast is quickly established, from the point of view of the Savitskys – “In the da Costa’s disciplined presence Harry was always a little embarrassed about their appetites.” But gentle social satire develops into something more complex, ending in a haunting revelation. 

Pearlman creates fiction so profound that it’s hard to believe it is only a few pages. Some of the stories read like condensed novels. “Vaquita” is 11 pages long yet a summary of the plot might suggest a substantial novel. It concerns the life and loves of Señora Perera de Lefkowitz, minister of health in a politically turbulent Central American country. She is a Polish-Jewish refugee from the Nazis who escaped to work as a women’s doctor. All the while the country is undergoing yet another revolution of which she expects to become a victim and about which she is sanguine. The historical reasons for her stoicism emerge along with details of her personal life (mother, husband, lovers etc.) that are slipped into the narrative as she reflects on her life and possible future. At the end, it feels like a condensed novel. And the potential for a novel is certainly there. The next story “Allog”, set in Israel, concerns an old friend of the lead character in “Vaquita.”. Similarly a pair of stories “If Love Were All” and “Purim Night” published 2 years apart feature the same US woman working for a Jewish child refugee organisation in London during World War 2 then in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1947. Despite the brevity of the form, it could have been a novel with its extraordinary detail and vivid sense of people and place. There is also a long-form development of characters and relationships that made me want to read more.

In the end, though, it’s Pearlman’s iceberg-like perfection of the short story that is so impressive. The very best short stories make their brevity really tell. Pearlman’s are condensed, allusive, full of surprises. “Fidelity” is barely 6 pages long. It is a humorous account of an ageing travel writer sending in invented material to a rather old-fashioned magazine whose editor and readers love it anyway. Then an abrupt twist at the end  (well, two really) completely changes the tone, revealing what the title alludes to. In less than 4 pages, “Binocular Vision” moves from banality – a bored teenager using binoculars to observe her neighbours – to revelation. Their lives seem even duller than hers, though she is half aware that parts are screened from her. Then a remark  “[admitted] me abruptly into the complicated world of adults, making me understand what I had until then only seen.” I think that you can say that all these stories perform the function of making us understand at last what we have been only seeing.

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Edith Pearlman,  Binocular Vision (Pushkin Press, 2023). 978-805330479, 418pp., paperback.

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