Friday, February 3, 2012

Seeing beyond Our Ken: Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision

Starting with today's post and the two subsequent posts, I'll be doing a brief review of each of the short story collections shortlisted for The Story Prize. The Story Prize, in its press release announcing the finalists, provides some more background information on each of the three authors nominated for the award.

For today's post, we'll take a glimpse at Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories.

Binocular Vision, which comes from Pearlman's short story of the same name, serves multiple functions as a title. First of all, this title alerts the reader to one of the more philosophical pieces in the collection, in which a child uses a set of binoculars to spy on neighbors and interprets this voyeuristic impulse as "visiting." The result—and I'll kindly avoid spoiling the story for you—is that this viewer realizes that all the assumptions of watching, without ever nearing and genuinely understanding the watched, turn false.

Pearlman's collection, in both the twenty-one old stories and the thirteen newly collected pieces, actively counteracts this narrow sight with the sort of all-seeing (and equally binocular) vision that only fiction can provide. (Even the titular "Binocular Vision" accomplishes this, through the story's ultimate reversal.) This is a collection that encourages its reader to collapse boundaries, to enter another person's reality and vision of the world. Binocular Vision broaches a range of subjects—aging, fidelity, ambition, friendships, illness, political upheaval—with the constant intent of showing readers these unstable terrains and then, after we have viewed these landscapes, to travel along the routes of our own readerly vision and enter these richly rendered narratives.

As with most good fiction, Pearlman's stories offer us characters to guide us on these textual travels. The volume's final story, "Self-Reliance," leads us on an expedition into solitude and illness, during which the protagonist, Cornelia Fitch, must test her own limits and rely on a younger colleague's diagnosis: "He too was reliable—ten years younger than she, a slight man, a bit of a fop, but no fool. Yes, together they could beat back this recurrence, and wait for the next one." Her confidence thus boosted, Cornelia reflects on her own accomplishments and her value to others; she has earned most of what she wanted in her life, seldom been denied anything, and enjoyed a great deal of professional respect. But this inward thinking—which is at once important yet separates her from those around her—ultimately mires her, contributes to her end. A failure of metaphoric sight contributes to her decline.

The characters populating these fictions, though, are not alone in uncovering obscured lessons and experiences. The story "Chance" explores such hidden meanings with a Torah from Czechoslovakia, which remains cloistered while the synagogue goes about its regular business. "Capers" presents an elderly couple who adopt a series of unethical) hobbies, such as gathering loose change and shoplifting; the ploys embody their struggles with the aging process and encourage readers to reconsider our romanticized view of sedentary, post-retirement life.

I had heard of Edith Pearlman infrequently before The Story Prize announced the three finalists for this year's award, but Binocular Vision is a collection that, in my eyes, elevates her to the pantheon of short story writers that includes such figures as John Updike. Her stories tend to have an elegance and a poise generally lacking in much of The New Yorker brand of short stories, and her prose demonstrates what beautiful work a story can perform. This is a collection that should be savored, read over a long period of time, selecting story by story at random as one might chocolates from a delectable sampler.

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