Thursday, October 27, 2011

I love you, Edith Pearlman

So, after inaugurating this blog with posts on apocalypse and pain, I thought that this time I would write something warm and gushy instead: an unabashed love letter to the newest addition to my writerly pantheon, Edith Pearlman. I’ll try not to get too purple, but it’s going to be difficult.

I must admit I came late to the party. Thanks to Lookout Books, a new imprint out of UNC Wilmington (so new, this is their first book), some of Pearlman’s gems have been gathered together to form the collection Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories (2011). In the introduction, Ann Patchett claims that “this should be the book with which Pearlman shakes off her secret-handshake status” (p. xi). A review in the New York Times brought the book to wide attention; then came Pearlman’s PEN/Malamud Award and the book’s nomination for a National Book Award. I think Patchett can consider her prediction fulfilled.

I saw the NYT review and added the book to my reading list, but didn’t get around to it. Then, I got a group email from Rosellen Brown to everybody writerly she could think of, encouraging us to attend Pearlman’s reading at Women and Children First. I meant to go – who am I to ignore a recommendation by Rosellen Brown? – but didn’t. Finally, I read the book. And re-read it, and re-read it. It has been on my nightstand for months, a book I dip back into again and again for delight and solace and a reminder of what is possible in this art and of how far I have yet to go in it.

In her introduction, Patchett talks about having to fill in for an actor who was supposed to read one of Pearlman’s stories at a book launch party for BASS 2006. She says, “My only challenge was to keep from interrupting myself as I read. So often I wanted to stop and say to the audience, ‘Did you hear that? Do you understand how good this is?’” (p. xii). I say that to myself so often as I read these stories, not because they preen with cleverness or showy prose, but because they are works of art so deftly crafted, so surely made. No seams or thumbprints show. And I say it to myself because these stories are so richly, deeply human, addressing all the glories and foibles of this sorry species, in death and love and war and clumsy tenderness.  They lay bare with piercing honesty and sympathy, and without any smarty-pants superiority (despite their wit and intelligence). I also say it to remind myself to “read like a writer,” and pay attention to what I can learn about my art and craft here. These stories are so good it can be hard to resist the power that makes them sing through you, and respond to them any other way than as a grateful, entranced, fully engaged reader.

I wrote a couple posts ago about David Foster Wallace’s call for fiction that keeps alive the glow of what is possible despite the time’s darkness. I wonder if he was in on the Pearlman handshake. For his sake, I hope so, despite the great difference in their styles and approaches. I know that I am glad to be. I can’t claim some sort of insider status, now that handshake is not so secret anymore, but I have the gift of having read these stories and been changed by them, and that is what really counts.

I’ll leave you with a sample of the Pearlman prose that now lives in my head, thankfully. This is from “The Coat,” a story about a relief worker who comes home to the U.S. after years serving in European DP camps. She cuts her gray hair in the Mary Martin crop fashionable in New York at the time, and takes to the streets of the city in the fur-collared wool overcoat left behind by a previous occupant of the Manhattan apartment she is subletting:

She did not think of the coat as lawfully hers, oh no. But in its illicit protection she became a personage. Immigrant men hoping to adapt to the New World were buying fedoras and secondhand broad-shouldered suits. Unwittingly they looked like gangsters. In print dresses their wives resembled charladies. Sonya, American by birth, graduate of a teacher’s college and an accounting course, never out of the country until she was past fifty…Sonya was preserving the Old World of Ringstraßen, universities, coffeehouses, salons, museums, bunds and diets and parliaments and banks. She walked and walked. Truck drivers shouted coarse phrases to one another. Shopgirls out for lunch wore glistening lipstick. Sometimes she paused at a department store window and bowed at her reflection. (pp. 154-155)

Do you hear that? Do you understand how good that is? Of course you do.

Monday, October 17, 2011


In an effort to describe something as indescribable, someone once said to me, "It would be like asking someone to describe what pain feels like." I was thinking about that comment recently, and about how in fact pain does differ, and not just in degree, which led to this piece. Please note: this is not for the squeamish.

“You looked like you were being led from one torture chamber to another,” someone said to me later. My partner on one arm, the doula on the other, briskly walked me up and down the hospital corridors because, after twenty hours of labor, the midwifery team decided the birth would come sooner if I kept moving, stopping only to grip the railing and squat when the contractions hit.

I didn’t want to keep moving. I didn’t want to walk by the lounge where my family members were waiting, to hear my mother call out encouraging words in a choked-up voice that pulled me out of myself and into concern about how she was feeling. I wanted to crouch in a dark corner, where no one would talk or poke or bear me along. I walked only because it was less distracting to keep moving than to negotiate.

How strange, that the passage to a state in which my life would be given over to the needs of another would first require shutting out others. I needed to climb inside this pain, be enveloped in it. This wasn’t torture, whatever it looked like from the outside. Torture subjects from without, like the renal colic that my body tried to arc away from, writhing around a pain that promised release if I could just find the right position, although it never could be found. This pain my body accepted. I floated in it, a boundless ocean that surrounded me as I rode each wave.

When at last I felt the opening up that meant labor was becoming delivery, I became even more enclosed. Not even the snapping of my tailbone or the splitting of my vaginal tissue brought me into the world where nurses scurried and midwives shouted directions. I finally emerged when I felt the sting of the surgeon stitching 20 sutures in the lateral tears as I held my child, trying to make her first moments of life something other than hearing me say, “Ow. Ow. Ow.”

Thursday, October 13, 2011

New Year, End Times

The new year seemed as good a time as any to start this blog, and the sermon I gave during Kol Nidre services at Congregation Or Chadash seemed as good a first post as any, since it addresses an issue that has been nagging at me lately. I realize this is lengthy for a blog post, but don't worry -- I won't usually go on for this long! As a sermon, this was written for a specific audience, in this case a community of fabulous, caring, intellectually-inclined, mostly LGBTQ Jews, so please bear that in mind when you run into any use of the 1st person plural.
One evening, Rabbi Israel Salanter passed a tailor still stitching despite the darkened sky, by the light of one candle. When the rabbi asked the man why, the tailor replied, “So long as the candle still burns, it is still possible to do and to mend.” Rabbi Salanter did not sleep himself that night, but paced the floor in a fever of excitement, muttering to himself, “So long as the candle still burns, it is still possible to do and to mend!”
I was reminded of this story when, after novelist David Foster Wallace lost his long battle with depression, a New Yorker article reprinted a point Wallace had made about 10 years earlier:
Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. (
This quote provided me with my own Salanteresque response, in which I walked around repeating to myself, “these may be dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?” The New Yorker article claimed that this problem drove Wallace as he worked on The Pale King, the novel left unfinished by his suicide, but it matters for anyone trying to “apply CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical, that still live and glow despite the time’s darkness.” How does one see this dark and stupid world in all honesty and clarity but still identify, even act upon, the possibilities for being alive and human in it? 
Gary Shteyngart could have had Wallace’s definition in mind when he wrote Super Sad True Love Story, a satire which imagines the collapse our dark and stupid ways will bring upon us, although its dystopic vision might be too total to illuminate what still glimmers in the darkness. In the novel’s disconcertingly not-too-distant future, conversation has been largely drowned out by the constant stream of data coming over the “äpparäts” people wear around their necks. When people do “verbal” each other, they fend off the embarrassment of “emoting” with glibness and reflexive irony, peppering sentences with acronyms like “JBF” or flat “hahas.” Written communication fares no better: at every National Guard checkpoint, you will find misspelled signs advising you that merely reading the sign means that you have consented to deny that it exists. Our unfashionably bookish hero, Larry Abramov, uses a ruler to help him keep his place as he pores over the pages of obsolete “printed objects,” his lips moving to form each word. Larry manages to find moments where he can connect with others, if imperfectly, in this crass, violent, and soul-deadening world, but there is no stopping or escaping from its bloated sickness.
I can appreciate the fact that Shteyngart wouldn’t pull any punches: he pummeled his target the way he thought it deserved. Even as I found myself deeply affected by the novel, however, I wondered if, in giving his cynicism such free reign, he wasn’t actually engaging in the same sort of hip distancing his novel decries. In the 19th century, for example, William Morris claimed that he lived his entire life in opposition to modernity; his novel Erehwon was part of that effort, imagining a utopia that corrected all of the wrongs he found in his society and culture. I doubt a utopic novel like Morris’s would get the same critical appreciation today that Shteyngart’s dystopic one did: such an effort would likely be dismissed as sentimental, unserious, or naïve.
Our current moment is beset by dystopic visions: from every point on the ideological spectrum, people seem to be convinced that we have or are coming to the end of something, and whatever comes next won’t be good. Even Christians who embrace rapture theology indulge in lurid fantasies about what will happen to those “left behind” (as the series with that title puts it) more than they seem to look forward to “ten thousand years” of “bright shining like the sun” with the composer of “Amazing Grace.” But eschatology, the belief that history leads toward some end, doesn’t have to breed morbidity and pessimism. Indeed, the Book of Isaiah contains utopic images that have resonated down the centuries:
They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation and they will no longer study warfare. (Isaiah 2:4)
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
These days, we can imagine the end but not the new beginning; we are fascinated by the tropes of end times because they provide a way to talk about how lost and stuck and hopeless we feel.
So where do we go from here? What do we do, beyond rail against the dark and stupid times in which we live? How do we approach a new year if we are indeed living during some sort of end, or at least a time when it is very hard to have faith in beginnings?
One clue might be found in Dara Horn’s novel, All Other Nights. After two novels which built bridges between the violent erasures of the Holocaust and the quiet uncertainty of the present day, Horn turned to the Civil War, that nexus of American mythology so beloved by reenacters and romantics, and Judaized it, focusing on real and fictional American Jews who were pivotal in the conflict, and also weaving together Jewish and American symbols and themes in her presentation of the period. The war disintegrates the lives and selves of the novel’s main characters. Even Richmond consumes itself in a great conflagration. For the old Jewish men fleeing the city, however, the disaster is just another chapter in a longer story. As the novel puts it, “They had seen the world end so many times before.” The lesson for the younger characters and civilization is that we are rarely masters of our fate and circumstances, and in such a world sometimes the only recourse is to gather one’s remnant and live on as best as one can.
The last few centuries have shown us that secular eschatology, with its dreams of inevitable progress and human perfectibility, has its limits. When these dreams were made manifest in the world, they wrought changes which, alongside their benefits, have had a human cost, as well as an environmental one: from the Gilded Age to our own, industrialized and now globalized progress has consumed human and material resources as well as produced them. These dreams also ignored the intractability of greed, bloodlust, and other elements of human behavior we like to pretend have no place in civilized society, but which we cannot seem to eradicate with rational analysis or notions of social contracts.
In dark and stupid times such as these, perhaps we can only pick up and carry on, knowing the world will end again and again, but that it will also continue after each ending, so long as we are here to persist. In other words, we should combine an understanding that the worst can happen with a faith that things might be made better, or at least bearable, recalling Hillel’s advice that when everyone around you ceases to be human, you should struggle to remain a human being. To desist from the work does not make us or the world any better off. Because if we now know that human nature is not perfectible, that the human appetite for destruction and power will never go away, we know too, or should recognize, that the human desire to create and to nurture will also never go away. If the light will never completely banish the darkness, so too will the darkness never completely extinguish the light. These may be dark times, and stupid ones, but so long as the candle still burns, it is still possible to do and to mend. What other, better choice do we have? Surrender ensures that culture and society will sink under the weight of the ugliness of which human beings are capable.
A story in the Talmud teaches that The Messiah is already present, and we are the ones who must come to understand how to recognize and heed him. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi once encountered the prophet Elijah, and asked him, “When will the Messiah come?”
“Go and ask him,” Elijah replied. “You will find him at the entrance to the city, sitting among the poor lepers: the rest of them untie their bandages all at once, and rebandage them together, but he unties and then rebandages each of his sores separately, thinking, should I be wanted, I must not be delayed.”
So Rabbi Joshua went to the Messiah and greeted him, and asked, “When will you come, Master?”
“Today,” the Messiah answered.
Rabbi Joshua later returned to Elijah and said, “The Messiah spoke falsely to me: he said that he would come today, but he has not.” Elijah answered, “This is what he said to you: Today, if you will hear his voice.” (adapted from Talmud Sanhedrin 98a)
Though he may tarry, I cannot help but believe, albeit with an imperfect faith, in the promise implicit in the coming of the Messiah. If not now, then someday – I hope, I pray, someday – and until then, without knowing when, I can only continue the work while the candle still burns.