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Binocular Vision

by Edith Pearlman

Lookout Books | 373 pages | $18.95

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

Old World and New

Edith Pearlman’s stories are witty, sly, and full of life, not to mention refreshingly free of cliché’s and platitudes.  They also vary in scene, character, and temperament to an astonishing degree.  In her latest collection, Binocular Vision—a beautifully designed book by Lookout Books--these traits are displayed in abundance.  In one story, one might find a child genius navigating the subway system in Boston; in another, the reader is taken to a foreign country and led almost warily by the hand of a jaded ex-patriot. 

Her characters are not timid—they go about their business with a brassy, exuberant vigorousness.  Nancy, an awkward young heroine in “Hanging Fire” is absolutely determined to woo and seduce the older, pudgy gentleman she becomes infatuated with, a man named Leo. 

In languid, summery scenes, Pearlman gently pokes fun of this bespectacled--some would say foolish--girl.  As the girl traipses about in her tennis shoes (and actually plays tennis), Pearlman creates a false tension.  We think we are heading for a passionate display, especially when Nancy follows Leo to his cottage, where she flings herself on his bed. Leo instead advises Nancy to travel in Europe, to “Look at the swans in Zurich... study the healthy life in Amsterdam.  Learn love from Italians, in Rome.”

With a lesser story-teller, the characters would end up in bed.  After all, how could a pudgy man resist such an ingénue?  Pearlman turns things on their head, pushes towards comedy, and startles us with clear-headedness.

       In another story worthy of a cinematic adaptation, “Elder Jinks,” an elderly, bohemian Grace marries the older and stodgier Gustave.  This is how the story begins:

       “Her tilted eyes were indeed a violet blue.  Her skin was only slightly lined.  Her gray hair was clasped by a hinged comb that didn’t completely contain its abundance.  Her figure was not firm, but what could you expect.”

        ‘I’m Grace,’ she said.

        ‘I’m Gustave,’ he said.  He took an impulsive breath.  ‘I’d like to get to know you.’

        She smiled.  ‘And I you.’”

        This sweet, slightly goofy love later implodes when Gustave returns to see Grace stoned with her old comrades, playing charades naked in his living room:  “It was like old times, Grace, too, was thinking.  And how clever they were at the game…Lee and Lee standing naked back to back while she fully clothed, traversed the living room…” 

Gustave becomes enraged, but in the end they make up.  This is particularly touching because of his acceptance of his wife.  The characters in Pearlman’s work are allowed to breathe, to be flawed, petty, silly, and smug.  Pearlman forgives them and so do their lovers.  There’s a reprieve in these stories from the bitterness often displayed in so much of our domestic fiction written today.

       Lurking behind the American lives of these happy and not-so-happy characters in many of the stories, there’s a nod to a richer, more civilized society, namely Europe before WWII.  No story does this more poignantly than “The Coat.”  A couple who have helped relocate Jews in Europe after the war end up moving to an apartment in the United States.  There the woman discovers a coat in the back of the armoire, left behind by the former tenants.  The coat is surely a relic from Europe, the fineness of the coat suggesting an eloquence and sophistication from the “old country.” 

Pearlman writes, “Sonya…knew the Old World only by reputation.  Cafes, galleries, libraries, chamber recitals, salons…polyglots in elegant clothing conducting afternoon dalliances before returning to one of the great banking houses…  She becomes infatuated with the coat and begins to wear it.  When she takes it to a tailor, they confess they can’t mend coats of this quality.  Sonya knows intuitively that what she’s holding onto or what she desires has been obliterated by the Holocaust.”

  Many of the stories deal with this backdrop of terror and alienation and seem to question if people really are where they belong in this world.  On the other hand, her characters always show a remarkable resilience.

      The award winning story, “The Story”—it was in The Best American Short Stories—is about storytelling, and both the power and ownership of stories.  Essentially it is about two couples (their children are married) who are trying out a new restaurant.  Pearlman weaves the plot along through the dinner where pleasantries are exchanged and the couples chitchat about the relative merits of the restaurant.  The superficial world is discussed in stories, but behind that story is the ultimate story, the one Lucienne usually shares with people.  It is the story of her father’s arrest by the Nazis and her brother’s escape.  Although she usually shares this story, for many reasons Lucienne will not share it with this couple.  In essence, the couple are not “worthy” of the story.

      The life force is incredibly powerful in Pearlman’s work.  In one beguiling story—the final one in the collection, which makes sense thematically—a retired doctor knows she will commit suicide that day, yet she buys tomatoes she knows she will never eat.  It is simply because the life force is so strong in her, even as she plans her end.

       Much has been made (by other authors) about how Pearlman is undervalued or “not discovered.”  In fact, the imprint Lookout Books is committed to publishing books by “emerging and historically underrepresented voices, as well as works by established writers overlooked by commercial houses.”  And other authors continue to rave about her works.  Why she hasn’t gained the popularity of other writers remains a mystery.  Her writing may be a bit more difficult to penetrate, but once you’re there, you’re in a world that is radical, swift and funny.  Also, she’s a writer who has set out to remind us of where we’ve come from and what we’ve lost along the way. 

Thank you for reminding us, Edith.

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