Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

"Binocular vision" by Edith Pearlman (Pushkin Press, 2013)

She published her debut collection when she was 60, in 1996. This book contains nearly 450 pages of New and Selected stories (about 38 of them, the first published in 1977, the last in 2013) from Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, Orion, etc. They're neatly written and don't conform to a predictable plot template, though they're all (except perhaps for "Self-reliance", which has a drug-induced fantasy) realist. There are several fat men, some female programmers, Jews, diamonds sewn into hems, central american settings, Godolphin, topology teachers, and old people striking up friendships with each other or the young. Stories tend to have at least one intelligent person - most often a precocious girl (though "Purim Night" has a precocious boy). In "Inbound" for example a bright little girl with her Down's younger sister are in a city with their parents. The prodigy becomes detached from the others. She and they work out strategies to meet up again.

The writing doesn't hang about. Here are some extracts -

  • It was raining. The wives had taken all the girls to a Betty Hutton movie. The MacKechnie boys grumbled quietly over the jigsaw puzzle. Boughs shifted and leaves rustled under the onslaught of rain. There was thunder in the distance and the hoot of ships. Without making a sound a figure pedaled down the strip of earth that was her own path, and onto the street. She wore no rain jacket, no hat. She lifted her wet head; she biked urgently toward the storm, as if it, at least, loved her. (p.55)
  • "Roland, I love you," she said, for the first time ever. And she did, she loved the whole silly mess of him: the effeminate softness of his shoulders, the loose flesh under his chin, the little eyes, the breath redolent of processed meats, the sparse eyebrows, the pudgy hands, the fondness for facts. Were these not things to love? Oh, and the kindness. He thrust, thrust ... "Ah," she said. And even in her pleasure, her witch's pleasure, she heard the stealthy opening of the door. She turned her head and met Ludwig's rodent gaze (p.168)
  • The Story
    "Predictable," said Judith da Costa.
    "Oh ... hopeful," said her husband, Justin, in his determinedly tolerant way.
    "Neither," said Harry Savitsky, not looking for trouble exactly; looking for engagement perhaps; really looking for the door, but the evening had just begun.
    Harry's wife, Lucienne, uncharacteristically said nothing. She was listening to the tune: a mournful bit from Liszt.
    What these four diners were evaluating was a violinist, partly his performance, partly his presence. The new restaurant - Harry and Lucienne had suggested it - called itself the Hussar, and presented piroshki and goulash in a Gypsy atmosphere. The chef was rumoured to be twenty-six years old.
  • When Laurette had gone, Nancy peeked again at her other letter. I love you, it still said. I consider that it's time we ... She stared at the flies for some minutes, during which Mrs. Hasken drifted onto the porch and sat down.
    "Would you like the glider, Mother?"
    "I don't think so." Her face was beautiful despite its extreme thinness. At fifty she had not yet turned gray. She was a woman who had worn hats, hummed tunes, laughed at radio wags. She had endured the illness and decay of the man she loved, and his dying. Alone, she's attended ballet recitals in drafty barns, clapped at graduations, and waited up for Nancy, lying sideways on a couch whose brocade carved a cruel pattern into her cheek.
    "Remember 'Glow-Worm'?" Nancy asked.
    "I don't think so. That pas de deux?"
    "Irma Fellowes pushed me across the stage like a broom."
    "Chubby Irma. She's married now."
    "How are you feeling?"
    "Fine!" Fingers flew to cheek. "Don't I look fine?"
    No. But Nancy had already spoken with their physician, a belly with a beard.
    "High blood pressure," he'd said. "Under control"
  • Hubert was sitting on a bench. She studied his pose. It was perfect: you could tear up the early drafts. The rounded shoulders confessed to loneliness - no son to inherit the business; beloved daughters turning toward husbands and children; wife always distracted ... Illness somewhere in the future, death, ten years, ten minutes, time was forever an accordion ... The back straightened; the thick shoulders squared themselves to take on whatever lay waiting.
    She loved him beyond measure. You might say that she had taken thirty years to arrive at this moment of retrojoy. Or you might say that the moment had occurred thirty years ago but had gone unnoticed.

I liked "Fidelity", "How to fall", "Jan Term", and "Aunt Telephone". "Mates" is too slight. "Rules" is Munroian - I like it. The newer stories are at least as good as the older ones, and have greater variety.

Other reviews

  • Mark Lawson (There are echoes of Updike in the rhythms and observations of that sentence, but such are the multitudes of subject matter, place and structures in this collection that Pearlman finally seems beyond compare. The traditional literary system has worked, though grievously slowly, in giving a genius of the short story her due.)
  • Roxana Robinson (Pearlman’s view of the world is large and compassionate, delivered through small, beautifully precise moments. Her characters inhabit terrain that all of us recognize, one defined by anxieties and longing, love and grief, loss and exultation. These quiet, elegant stories add something significant to the literary landscape)
  • Andrea J. Nolan

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