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 Ringstra├čen, 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.

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