If anyone can prove to me there’s a better short story writer than Edith Pearlman, I’ll eat my keyboard. Why I haven’t stumbled on to her long ago is as big a puzzle to me as why I’ve missed all the other people and things that have zipped by behind my back over the years. Don’t trust my assessment? How about Ann Patchett who says in her introduction to Binocular Vision, “Put her stories beside those of John Updike and Alice Munro. That’s where they belong.” Amen, I say, Amen.
When you have such a treasure chest of gems in front of you, you’re tempted to pick favorites. At least I am. So I tried. Hmmm. How about the linked stories of Sonya and her work in the WWII refugee camps and subsequent efforts to reintegrate into American society? Or perhaps the story of brother-sister incest that makes the taboo seem almost normal, or at least not a cause for stoning. I could go for the one about the American toy company executive trying to set up a division in a European city where everyone speaks a bewildering array of languages and his hosts’ daughter seems to have vanished without explanation. Oh, how about the one about the love affair between the transportation minister and the artist, the one where a one night stand turns into a “love-of-my-life” kind of thing, except they see each other only once every ten years or so, and that from afar.
So, no, I give up, no favorites. In a way, each one is my favorite because Pearlman fashions them all with exquisite care, every sentence a gem–gems within the larger gem of the story within the larger gem of this whole brilliant collection. (Bad metaphor, I know, unless you’re in a paranormal universe.) Here are a couple of sample passages I chose not only for their craftsmanship but to illustrate her geographic, cultural, and linguistic range:
Señora Marta Perera de Lefkowitz, minister of health, listened and memorized. Her chin was slightly raised, her eyelids half lowered over pale eyes. This was the pose that the newspapers caricatured most often.
My god, how much is revealed, how much suggested, how much concealed in that passage. You could make a long list.
Or from “Purim Night” (lots of Judaic themes in Pearlman’s stories) when Ida’s trying to explain to a young German boy how Esther saved the Jews way back when.
“A girl with good looks and a beautiful hat can work miracles,” Ida said, “Witholding the fuck. And that word, Ludwig, is improper … Ludwig ran away.
The whole legend of Esther and the kernel of the story itself lies in that short passage.
And the whole art form of the short story is contained and explained in this stunning collection. Buy it. Read it. Be inspired and amazed.