After too much champagne and white wine earlier this week, I decided to take it easy last night. I was in bed at 8pm, reading Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman (published by Pushkin Press).
I had started on this excellent collection of short stories in July, going back to it on and off over the following months as I was reluctant to finish the book. Each of the 38 short stories, written from 1977 to 2013, is beautifully delivered through Pearlman’s richly detailed yet precise narratives told through an assortment of characters: A supposed illegitimate descendent of the Romanov family, the sidekick of an American vaudeville television star and a 10-year-old girl observing her neighbours with a pair of binoculars, to name a few. What the narrators have in common is that they are thoughtful, intelligent and they are often facing a moral dilemma.
I didn’t use to read short stories as I always thought that they are somewhat anti-climatic – just when I am getting to know the characters and the plot, the story ends. I’ve since changed my mind after discovering the works by masters of short stories, such as Stefan Zweig, David Constantine and Edith Pearlman.
I think it is harder to write a short story than a novel because the former requires the author to convey the storyline (background, situation, ending), as well as bring to life the characters with their emotions and thoughts in a concise manner that touches the reader with its precision and intensity.
Each of the stories in Binocular Vision is an intense bout of emotions. Not necessarily short-lived as some of the stories linger in my mind long after I’ve turned the page.
I suppose because each piece is so emotionally charged, it was also difficult for me to read more than four or five of them in a row. Often after finishing one of Pearlman’s stories, I felt the need to close my eyes and let it all soak in. On a few occasions, I would re-read the story and marvel at how well-written it was.
The stories in this collection revolve around human relationships, sometimes fraught with love, fear, camaraderie, desire, envy, grief and loneliness. There is also an underlying sense of discomfort and restrained emotions as the characters deal with their situations. Often the stories take an unexpected twist at the end or the narrator arrives at an epiphany that would catch me by surprise or shock.
Several of the stories are set in an imaginary Massachusetts suburb called Godolphin, while others take place around the globe, from Latin America to Russia, and Europe to New England. No matter where these take place, Pearlman efficiently transports the reader into each scenario with her beautiful prose.
I don’t have a favourite amongst the 38 stories. There isn’t one that I don’t like. There are a few that struck me more than others. Without giving away the plots, here are some of the stories and excerpts that I especially enjoyed:
Unravished Bride (2001)
I love this story. In just six pages – this is one of the shortest pieces in the collection – Pearlman weaves an unexpected, forbidden love story. The title, Unravished Bride, perfectly sums up the tale which ends with:
They were bound to the code of their youth – self-denial and honour and fidelity – an inconvenient code that would keep them, she realised with a pang, forever chaste, and forever in love.
Meg was silent. Of all the silences he had ever experienced, Meg’s was his favourite. It was not disappointed, like his mother’s; not bored, like those of the women he had courted; not embarrassed, like that of the search committee that had failed to award him the headmastership; not sleepy, like students in late-afternoon remedial classes; and not terrifying, like his mute aunt after her stroke.
The students’ places, the couple’s house, would be taken by other people. Homes allowed themselves to be commandeered by whoever came along. Not like cats; cats remain aloof. Not like dogs; dogs remain loyal. Like women, he made himself think, willing misogyny to invade him, to settle in, so that in another few years everybody would assume he had been in its possession forever.
An example of Pearlman’s precise yet elegant delivery: Following a declaration of love, the man pleaded with the woman to look at him. Her reply: “I don’t dare.”
Those three words were the closest to an admission of love he would ever hear. They were enough. During the next five years, until the onset of Victor’s illness, she arrived once a season, like a quarterly dividend. They spent the afternoon in his not-quite-wide-enough bed. The sky told them when it was time to leave for her train – a merciless five o’clock sky, royal in December, slate in March, turquoise in June, cornflower in September.
How to Fall (2003)
The story starts with Joss Hoyle, the sidekick to Happy Bloom, an American vaudeville television star, receiving fan mail from a ‘Lady in Green’. Joss’ character doesn’t talk nor smile on screen. His family life doesn’t give him much to smile about either – his daughter, Teddie, is mentally handicapped and his wife has been depressed since giving birth. When Joss finally meets the Lady in Green, he is surprised. She tells him she loves the way he falls, and shortly after, that she has fallen in love with him. How to Fall ends on a lingering bittersweet note.
Girl in Blue with Brown Bag (2005)
This is a tale of an endearing relationship between two neighbors, “the man of sixty-seven and the girl of seventeen” and the companionship they have in each other. He, Francis Morrison, is a retired lawmaker. She, Louanne Zerubin, a recent immigrant from Russia.
Francis on why he disapproves of yes-no questions:
A test is a teaching device. It should encourage the student to consider the uncategorical, the ambiguous.
In another conversation, following a discussion about the love of money:
“So what do you care about? What are your transcendent values?”
She was proud of the phrase; her smirk told him so. Well, if he had to name something: the relative importance of honesty, the primary importance of loyalty… “Truth,” he heard himself lying.
She signed. “what besides truth?”
“Beauty,” he helplessly admitted.
The conversation ends with:
“Beauty,” she repeated. “I could get you that.”
“What do you mean, Louanne? You have already brought beauty into my life.” He withstood her glare. “The beauty of… your extraordinary mind, and of our conversations.”
“Yah,” she spat.
Louanne delivers her promise, bringing unexpected beauty to dear old Francis. The curious turn of events that transpire between the unlikely comrades is both charming and funny.
Jan Term (2009)
Unlike the other stories in Binocular Vision, this witty piece takes primarily the form of a report for a school volunteer project. The narrator’s story of her family, her deceased mother, her father and brother, and her new step-mother, is mostly interwoven into the report through the forthright footnotes. A delightful read.
One of the shorter works in the book, this is a remarkable story within a story as Professor Lubin – hospitalised after a “transient ischemic attack”, i.e. a stroke – asserts her royal lineage, in Russian, to the American doctors surrounding her.
The Ministry of Restraint (2008)
He gave her that last word. He gave her his love. He would think of her almost every day for the rest of his life. Only his presence he would withhold.
An American couple, Fergus and Barbara, newly relocated to a small Czech town, befriends Bernard and Anna who run a secondhand toy shop. The Americans are parents to three grown-up children while the latter couple appear to have had a young daughter. When the toymakers’ secret is revealed, Pearlman also unveiled, in a striking yet subtle way, the tension between Fergus and Barbara and that perhaps all is not well between them.
Elder Jinks (2007)
A love story between two elderly people of rather different personalities who marry each other after a whirlwind courtship of less than three months. Secrets from their past and current temperaments gradually emerge. There’s anger, dismay and regret. And there’s hope.
Shortly after finishing the last piece – The School of Hubert – yesterday night, I knew I would be re-reading Binocular Vision. It’s that’s good. Actually, in writing this review, I read several of the stories again!