Here's my Oregonian review of Binocular Vision from last April:
"I never figured out how to forget," a narrator observes at the close of one of Edith Pearlman's masterful stories. The comment refers to the character's youth; it would also aptly describe what makes this story writer exquisite. Binocular Vision, the volume of new and selected Pearlman stories published by Lookout Books, graces readers with a near-dizzying range of people, eras, locales and situations -- a cornucopia so variegated yet consistently authentic that one can only deem it the result of decades spent observing and absorbing -- patient years of unforgetting.
Pearlman's attentions rove from a rabbinical poker group to an impulsive act of generosity in a riven Latin American country to the existential dilemmas of an aristocratic tomboy ("androgynous beyond repair"); from the international hodgepodge of a Jerusalem apartment complex to the thoughts of an executive toy manufacturer afloat in the Old World. One senses in literary work of this scope a quality of beautiful yearning, as if the author's expansive reach itself acknowledges impossibility: whoever observes so much so well can never get it all down.
Alfred Kazin once wrote, "Literature seeks to reclaim the world that is constantly receding from us ... to reconcile us to life by showing that it is not limited to the actual data of existence." Pearlman's individual stories, in their variousness -- with nary a false note -- stay what normally streams away, showing us life with virtuosic subtly and effect. As for that knee-jerk complaint against story collections -- "Uneven!" -- let nobody file it here. These stories rise to cumulative impact as Pearlman furnishes vision after unified vision of persons adrift each in his or her discrete selfhood. Which is not to call her characters self-absorbed -- only to note that Pearlman's is a world of wanderers, floaters, individuals incontrovertibly aloof, whatever their entanglements, and that all of her people are spookily awake to the inescapable and isolating vulnerabilities of life.
In "Inbound" a child momentarily loses her parents on a busy Boston street. "Her life would be lived in the world ... She foresaw that. She foresaw also that as she became strong her parents would dare to weaken. They too might tug at her clothing, not meaning to annoy." In "The Non-Combatant," about a terminally ill doctor vacationing with family on Cape Cod in the final days of World War II, repeated references to "the pain" of his cancer -- always obscure, nonlocalized -- seem meant to suggest the pains of living, and when we read the following: "How lucky he had been in her, and in their children, and in his work -- and yet how willingly he would trade the pleasures of this particular life for life itself," we find something far more identifiable -- because more fundamental -- than mere selfishness. In "Mates" a couple mysteriously arrive in a town, quietly raise a family for years and leave without warning or goodbye once their children have grown. "None of us knew them well. They didn't become intimates of anyone. And when they vanished, they vanished in a wink." And in "How to Fall," about a silent straight man to a wisecracking TV personality, we see the mute comic's glum face isolated night after night in the black-and-white screen, abstracted from his fellow humans who tune in at home -- though never for him.
Every Pearlman story gives us moments observed with profound attentiveness, each so scrupulously rendered they induce a readerly state analogous to the ideal writerly one described by Henry James: "The condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it." That, as literary production goes, is surpassingly rare. Call it a blessing and start reading Binocular Vision. --M. Allen Cunningham