Messages in a bottle

Binocular Vision, by Edith Pearlman, Pushkin Press, RRP£16.99/Lookout Books, RRP$18.99, 384 pages

Sometimes, you look at a really intricate piece of work and you think something quite banal. You think: “How in the name of all that is holy did they get the ship into the bottle?” That is exactly what I found myself thinking as I read these stories – each of them meticulously made, miraculously precise, and so fully populated that you marvel one mind could invent so many distinct human beings from scratch.

The really odd thing is that Edith Pearlman has been hiding in plain sight. These stories are the fruit of four decades’ writing, and yet Pearlman, who is 76, isn’t just underappreciated in relation to her accomplishment: she’s all but invisible outside the US. This career-spanning volume of stories – the earliest from 1977 but most from the 1990s and the Noughties – is the first time she has been published in the UK. I’d never even heard of her. Had you? Well, you have now: and you should set about making up for lost time.

I wanted to write that Pearlman’s is an art of supreme restraint but that is to suggest something buttoned-up and restricted. She can also be loose and antic. Substitute, perhaps, control for restraint: she knows in every story here precisely what she’s doing. And they are so various, so inventive, so full – sentence by sentence – of the oddity and quiddity and complexity of individual lives.

Pearlman’s centre of gravity, if that’s the way to put it, is suburban Massachusetts, in an imaginary Boston suburb called Godolphin, but there are stories set in Central America, in postwar Europe. Among her preoccupations are deracination and exile – there’s a set of three linked stories about a middle-aged woman working for the American Joint Distribution Committee helping Jewish refugees during the war – but also age, parenthood, married love, childhood, the longing to be alone and the fear of it ... hell, the lot.

These stories often contain the ambiguous little epiphanies that are the bread and butter of the short story writer, but what’s more unusual is that they don’t just, or even mainly, deal in charged moments. Some of them compass decades, lifelong relationships – one of them reaches, albeit fleetingly, through five generations of a family. They don’t feel stretched or spare. The prose works hard.

Look, for instance, at the way a simile will be apt to the mind that produces it – for a young girl, the Paris metro is “as smelly as day camp” – or at the way Pearlman allows syntax to carry a voice. There’s an unmistakable Jewish-American cadence, for instance, in the opening of “Chance”: “When our synagogue was at last selected to become the new home of a Torah from Czechoslovakia – a Torah whose old village had been obliterated – the Committee of the Scroll issued an announcement, green letters on ivory, very dignified.” The position of those last two clauses nails it.

Contrast, then, breezy young gentile: “They’re like from another world.” Or a feisty stepmum: “Just two days earlier she’d quit her graduate program in classics, chucked those Romans as if they were all losers, chucked her boyfriends too. ‘They can cool their heels,’ she’d told us.” Or a young Russian girl: “My great-great-uncle threw a bomb. They shot him for it. Asshole.” That economy of effect is marvellous. Two lines of dialogue, as a wife joins her husband in a strange city, are a capsule portrait of a long and affectionate marriage. “You will. Are you tired, darling?” “Not too tired. Darling.”

Did I mention that many of these stories are very funny? A staff member at a women’s soup kitchen tells her colleagues how a drunk woman attacked her own 18-month old grandson with a pepper-shaker (“Peppering him? ... Peppering him with what?” “Peppering him with pepper. She had him on her lap and she was shaking the pepper jar over him as if he were a pizza. I don’t think any got into his eyes. But I wanted to strangle the bitch.”). She goes on: “I’d suggested that [she take a time-out in a side-room] earlier, before she decided to season him.” Isn’t “season” glorious?

And here’s a chunk from a bright young girl’s what-I-did-in-the-holidays about working in an antique shop:

“Establishments like Forget Me Not help preserve things of the past, and this adds to our general knowledge of history. Antique stores have been criticised for pandering to what’s low in human nature – acquisitiveness and narcissism. But the acquisition of items gives aesthetic pleasure to those who acquisition them as well as to those who will view them in their eventual resting places, museums. As for narcissism, I do believe it is here to stay.”

I do believe Edith Pearlman is here to stay too. Look at all these ships in all these bottles! Those sails are rippling. They have cargoes and destinations. There are people walking around on deck. I repeat: how in hell do they do that?

Sam Leith is the author of ‘The Coincidence Engine’ (Bloomsbury)

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