After the authorial point-of-view penetrates, after the characters have been made flesh, after the scent of New England wafts and the starburst leaves shimmer like a smoke screen before your eyes, the tensions tip us forward, the rhythm of our breath matches the rhythm of the prose, and just like that, we’re drinking pages — 10, 20, 100 at a time. This full-immersion baptism is what John Gardner calls the “vivid, continuous dream,” and it’s the reading experience we long for. Short stories can move us in this way, but they rarely do. Novels are often more conducive to this rapture. Instead, short stories move us in different ways, offering flashes of wisdom, linguistic pyrotechnics, provocative dialogue, tantalizing ideas. But Edith Pearlman, in her new collection, Honeydew — magically, gracefully — accomplishes both of these feats. The flourish is where it should be: far from the nose, underwater, begging for another dive, another dive, another dive.
The phrases “master of the short form” and “undiscovered genius” didn’t start appearing next to Pearlman’s name until her fourth and much-lauded collection, Binocular Vision, came out in 2011. Why was she only then catapulted to the top shelf of Literary Land Yiyun Li clues us in when she says Pearlman “works outside the noise.” She eschews gimmick and shock and ignores the standard of the day to begin in media res. This is good old fashioned fashioning: sumptuous feasts of character, place, plot; beginning-middle-end; generous, wise, et al. Binocular Vision gave us a beautiful vagary of Jews, Gentiles, and pagans of all shapes, colors, and sizes grappling to either accommodate or be accommodated to. We saw a war doctor battling cancer, a seven-year-old girl separated from her parents near Harvard Square, an exiled minister of health holed up in a barn, fearing arrest for her liberal politics. We saw loads of disappointed, flawed, charming, and somewhat self-alienated people. “I love to write about what isn’t me,” Pearlman told The Boston Globe. Many of her stories take place in Godolphin, a fictional, first-wrung suburb of Boston, which she described for Beatrice in 2005:
Bow-fronted apartment buildings line Jefferson Boulevard; trolley tracks run down its middle like a zipper. In the town live ancient Yankees, prosperous Jews, envious academics; shopkeepers, secretaries, music teachers; Asian-Americans, Irish Americans, Russian almost-Americans. A few inhabitants sleep in alleys. Godolphinites exhibit every sexual preference including the preference to be left alone.
Whether in Godolphin or elsewhere, the stories of Honeydew often explore how one person’s societal remove — however painful or quotidian — pushes them to the brink of isolation and forces them to bumble out into the world in search of connection. In the opening story, “Tenderfoot,” Bobby Farraday, a young divorcé, moves to a smallish town to teach art history at the local college. The bathroom window of his top floor apartment offers a plain view into the pedicure parlor across the street and, more importantly, of the parlor’s owner, Paige, a 49-year-old widow. “Secretly he considered himself more than her neighbor. He was her invisible housemate…he stood to watch the pedicures, but usually sat on the lidded toilet, like a peep-show connoisseur.” Pearlman repeatedly thrills us by opening up secret worlds, and it’s because of the exquisite care with which these worlds are formed that we come to care deeply about her people (“characters” just doesn’t cut it).
Secrets are hoarded, shared, withheld, and sometimes tacitly roil between two characters. This tug-of-silent-war, this intimacy of knowing what is hidden/seen, fuels characters with intractable and often baffling powers. Because of this, the stakes often feel extremely high. In “Dream Children,” for example, a live-in nanny named Willa stumbles upon her employer’s stash of gruesome paintings. With these paintings comes the secret pains of their maker. When Willa chooses to make this information known to her employer conjures the wager of gaining compassion — or perhaps losing her job.
The Jewish diaspora continue to make their mark in Pearlman’s work, but she seems more concerned with the broader world’s sometimes darker subject matter. In a heartbreaking story, “What the Ax Forgets, the Tree Remembers,” Gabrielle volunteers for the local chapter of the Society Against Female Mutilation, where she coordinates victim presentations. She routinely checks in on a Somalian victim, Selene, and gets thrust into an unpremeditated but not unwelcome intimacy. Our own secrets, rather than others’, can surprise us the most. In another, “Honeydew,” the last story and perhaps the strongest, Pearlman takes on anorexia. Emily Knapp, a 90-pound 11th grader, has an obsession with bugs. “She dined among her dead insects, admiring chitinous exoskeletons while she put one of three carrot sticks into her mouth.” Alice Toomey, the headmistress of Caldecott Academy wants Emily kicked out, but she’s preoccupied with her own secret love affair.
Sometimes the secret isn’t so much of a secret but more of a private world. “Castle 4,” (a novel in miniature, really), another standout, offers a trio of love stories. The story takes place in and around a High Victorian Gothic hospital, which people refer to as “the Castle.” It begins as a straightforward tale about an isolated, discontent, socially awkward anesthesiologist named Zeph Finn who falls for a dying patient, but Pearlman, in a feat of omniscience, deftly lifts the view and draws our attention to Acelle, a sixth-grade Filipina, who slips in the woods beyond the Castle and is stabbed in her upper thigh with a narrow branch. Her playmate Joe comes to her rescue. On the ground floor of the Castle, the manager of the gift shop falls for Acelle’s father, the security guard. It’s tempting to summarize the whole story, because it’s so lush, so impeccably designed and economized that it makes you want to give Pearlman an Honorary Novel degree.
“Wait and See,” previously collected in xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths, is the most obvious homage to the fairy tale, which has always earned its energies by private invitations. Like a pigeon or a butterfly, young Lyle is believed to be a pentachromat, meaning his retinas have five types of light-absorbing pigment, allowing him to see a thunderous wonder of colors. This gift, this “mischievous gene,” the doctors believe, was most likely passed down from Lyle’s sperm donor father, an African, “unknown bestower of semen.” Lyle is “like Anansi, the helpful spider of his favorite tales — a quiet ally who prefers his own company but skitters over to join you when you need him.” His head might be in the clouds, but in this case, the clouds are not dreams but an intricate reality. Like a magic carriage or enticing apple, Lyle is offered a way out of his isolated view with a pair of trichromatic glasses. The choice is loaded — joining the crowd, seeing things how others see them, or holding on to the one obvious thing that makes you who you are?
The shortest stories are the most forgettable. In “Her Cousin Jamie,” two teaching colleagues sit at a hotel bar and one is gripped by a memory of her cousin’s love affair. Once the story gets traction, it barrels into a tragic surprise, but the conversational frame feels unnecessary. “The Decent of Happiness,” one of the few stories in the first-person, feels more like an anecdote. A woman of indeterminate age looks back on a single memory when she was eight and went on a house call with her father, the country doctor. When the patient’s wolf-like dog bounds after her, she has her first ruminations of death. It’s not a bad story, just uncharacteristically rushed. Even so, there’s always wisdom to be found in a Pearlman story: “…I have discovered through the years that anyone who restricts his conversational responses to what he knows — what he knows he knows — will always seem to have an extraordinary, well-stocked mind.”
What holds these 20 together is what holds all of Pearlman’s stories together: recurring characters, settings, themes of love, loss, innocence, and the manifold forms of hunger and exile. There are a fair amount of widowers, divorcées, fussy loners, unsettled Jews, and therapists masquerading as small business owners, and they’re all so attentively and compassionately rendered that they rarely, if ever, blur. The distinct beginning/middle/end lends many of the stories a “once upon a time”/“one day this bad thing happened,” fairy tale structure. Make no mistake, Edith Pearlman’s world is grounded in reality, but as with John Cheever, John Updike, A.S. Byatt, and V.S. Pritchett, among others, her stories hold a reverence for the magical, the anomalous, and the chance encounters all around us.
In the afterward of Paris Stories, Mavis Gallant says, “Stories are not chapters in novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” But when a story collection is a considered a page-turner, it’s high praise. Usually, I heed Gallant’s advice, because every word counts in a story. Often, you need to re-read, let it settle, but something about this book feels so urgent, so wise, and it had me turning pages until the wee hours. So, what is the proper way to approach it? Lucky for us: either, both, and then again.