Do we know how to talk about Jewish writers when they are not talking about Anne Frank? Around the time that Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories won the National Book Critics Circle Award this past spring, Nathan Englander published a new collection of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Knopf, 2012), and Shalom Auslander brought out Hope: A Tragedy (Riverhead, 2012), a novel prominently featuring Anne Frank. All three write about Jewish characters and Jewish worlds. Yet despite the several prizes awarded to Binocular Vision, with their attendant publicity, Pearlman remains a largely unknown quantity. Why?
Reviewers and publicists readily categorized Englander and Auslander as maverick geniuses, the rightful heirs of Philip Roth, who wrote provocatively about Anne Frank in The Ghost Writer and Operation Shylock. Pearlman does not fit neatly into this lineage, which may be one reason she remains largely unknown. Even when raving about her work, reviewers sound the same plaintive note. Writing for the New York Times, Roxana Robinson puzzles, “Why in the world had I never heard of Edith Pearlman? And why, if you hadn’t, hadn’t you?” Ann Patchett, in her introduction to Binocular Vision, ranks Pearlman’s stories with “those of John Updike and Alice Munro,” and asks, “Why isn’t Edith Pearlman famous?” And in fact anyone asked to reel off a list of important Jewish American writers would probably not, even as an afterthought, add Pearlman’s name to those of Malamud, Bellow, Roth, Ozick, Paley, Englander, Chabon, and Safran Foer.
What might account for the dramatic disparity in popular reputation between the author of Binocular Vision and the current crew of writers who would seem to automatically take their place on such a list? Is this simply an instance of the general disparity in the prestige attributed to male and female writers, which Meg Wolitzer recently described in the New York Times Book Review as the routine relegation of women’s writing to “The Second Shelf”? Or does it have to do with how Pearlman thwarts the public’s expectations of writers dealing with Jewish material? Englander’s stories were enthusiastically received, Auslander’s novel mostly panned, but both seemed legible to readers in ways that Pearlman’s work has not been, not least because both men are clearly writing in a recognizable tradition that can be traced back to Roth. In many ways, one could read Englander and Auslander as trying to exorcise Anne Frank, not revive her; even so, they remain participants in a dialogue between men about the appropriate meaning to ascribe to a female figure whose early death has made her endlessly available as both symbol and mouthpiece.
Englander’s stories were enthusiastically received, Auslander’s novel mostly panned, but both seemed legible to readers in ways that Pearlman’s work has not been.
By naming her new story collection Binocular Vision, Pearlman chooses not to name herself as part of any particular self-appointed Jewish identity or literary tradition. In the title story (published in 1993, and Pearlman’s fourth published story), the narrator recalls her experience as a ten-year-old girl of using her father’s binoculars to peer into the apartment of the family’s next-door neighbors, the Simons. With her “magic glasses,” the girl tracks the domestic activities of Mrs. Simon and watches Mr. Simon come home from work and park his car. After dinner, she studies Mr. Simon and Mrs. Simon as they sit in the living room, Mr. Simon reading the newspaper, Mrs. Simon knitting, and “Talking. Laughing. Talking again.” After a while, the girl loses interest in the Simons. Then, one morning, policemen appear at the door of the family’s apartment, asking the girl’s father, a doctor, to come next door. When he returns he reports that Mr. Simon died during the night. But how?, the ever-curious girl wants to know. Mr. Simon, the father finally explains, shut the garage door and turned on the gas.
The next day the girl scans the obituary section in the local newspaper for more information. The word suicide does not appear; “suddenly” does. But what shocks the girl is the notice’s final sentence: “Mr. Simon, a bachelor, is survived by his mother.” She explains her surprise to her mother: “I thought she was his wife!” “So did she,” her mother says. And, looking back, the narrator underscores the lesson: how she came to “understand what I had until then only seen.”
Packed into this brief exchange is perhaps the motto
of all fiction writers: describe not just what appears before you but engage
supplementary knowledge. Pearlman’s title alludes to such knowledge, starting
with its dictionary definition: “Vision using two eyes with overlapping fields
of view, allowing good perception of depth.” People, like
objects, exist in relation to each other. The complexities of that relation are
illuminated in every story.
Of the thirty-four stories in Binocular Vision, approximately one-third explicitly address matters of Jewishness. Two stage encounters among characters who have found themselves in a displaced-persons camp at the end of World War II—“Purim Night” and “The Coat” (both from 2004). “Chance” (1997) recounts the effect on a small suburban community of receiving the only surviving Torah from a destroyed village in Czechoslovakia, a village whose inhabitants all perished in Majdanek. More often Jews, Jewish names, holidays, food, diction, noses, and mixed marriages constellate the stories without taking center stage, as though Jewishness was but one possible form of identity, or part of identity, a way of being in the world (a world that also includes heterogeneous others, rather than simply a reified class of threatening goyim). Pearlman’s characters sometimes live in an imaginary suburb of Boston, Godolphin (not far, presumably from Pearlman’s Brookline); they also inhabit and travel the world—Central America, Tsarist Russia, Israel, England. “If Love Were All” (2002), set in London during World War II, deals with refugees displaced by the conflict. Pearlman’s characters are not unaware of the effects of the war; neither are they obsessed with it.
I wonder whether the non-tragic, non-terrified destiny of Pearlman’s characters is not largely responsible for the fact that the author’s name is recognized by so few readers.
In both the Jewish and non-Jewish stories, Pearlman acknowledges the weight of Jewish history, without getting stuck there: “Assimilation had become as passé as the jitterbug,” her cosmopolitan narrator decides in “Relic and Type” (2007), a story about a Jewish man whose “grandson—his only child’s only child—married a young woman born in Kyoto.” History plays its part, but history is not allowed to overwhelm, to overdetermine the present. Two sixteen-year-old cousins in “Granski” (2005, the first of the new stories), a boy and a girl who share a great-grandfather, a nose (“a long thin wavy proboscis, rather comely”), and a common family story—decades earlier, the “terrified clan … had fled Antwerp for Haifa”—discuss what makes them a family. Toby, the boy, says, “We don’t belong anywhere, so each generation flees to some other place.” Angelica replies, “Portugal.” The narrator weighs in: “There was a shameful legend: some ancestor had advised the Portuguese king against sponsoring Columbus’s voyage.” Angelica proposes a distinguished origin to their diasporic lineage: “We started in Portugal.” Toby replies, linking their story to a much earlier scattering: “We started in the desert, like everybody else,” and modifies his description of the journey’s impact on their family’s emotional world: “Terrified was too strong”; “Uneasy … that’s what we are.”
To the extent that this world is Jewish, the stories explore that space of uneasiness—not terror. In the suburbs and cities of Binocular Vision, we learn to live with uneasiness, differences, loneliness—but also with mating, mixed marriages, being like everybody else in a world where everybody is different; and sometimes the familiar Jew/goy distinctions come to the fore.
Who decides what’s Jewish? The gifted Russian Jewish short-story writer Lara Vapnyar has coined the term “Jewmphasize”—the process of making a story more Jewish in order for it to be perceived as Jewish. I wonder whether the non-tragic, non-terrified destiny of Pearlman’s characters is not largely responsible for the fact that the author’s name is recognized by so few readers. Pearlman should be famous and isn’t. Could it be that Pearlman is somehow not Jewish enough? Could it also be that Pearlman does not belong to the New York publishing scene and establishment? Like many of her characters, Pearlman lives in a Boston suburb, and her collection was quietly brought out by Lookout Books, an imprint of the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
It would be interesting to think about how we might make connections between Pearlman as a Jewish woman writer and the Jewish women writers who enjoy a modicum of public recognition today: Allegra Goodman, Nicole Krauss, and Francine Prose; older writers like the late Grace Paley and Ida Fink; and the distinguished Cynthia Ozick, who recently decided that it was okay with her, now that she was a runner-up for it, for there to be a prize—the Orange Prize—for women writers. Since women writers, Jewish or not, do not typically situate themselves in relation to a singular renowned figure who dominates their literary landscape (not even that of Anne Frank), another kind of mapping is required. Ann Patchett “found” Edith Pearlman on her own. It’s time for the rest of us to discover her, along with the other Jewish women writers out there, prizewinners or not.