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.
When I was a lowly editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster in 2006, a colleague gave me a galley of Maile Meloy’s forthcoming A Family Daughter, and I was absolutely done for. Within a year, I had exhausted all of her published works.
Meloy is just ten years my senior, which means I’ve enjoyed an admittedly precious, evolving relationship with her work. Under normal circumstances, she probably couldn’t produce enough to mollify me, but she’s been downright vexing since 2009, when her last adult book, the short story collection, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, was released. Since then, she’s published a small number of articles and short stories in NPR, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and elsewhere. I won’t pretend that every new offering is her best, but for me, it fills an acute deficiency. It is the sustenance I need while I await her next book.
But the thing is, that book has yet to arrive. Instead, Meloy has made an unexpected foray into middle grade fiction with The Apothecary, a 2011 book about 14-year-olds and a magic book that falls into the hands of Russian spies. In June, the book’s sequel, The Apprentices, was released, and there were rumors of a third book, but no clues on her website.
In fact, despite being a reader in lockstep with this writer, I have absolutely no idea where she’s going. It seemed time to query the writer herself, and Meloy was kind enough to email with me last week.
The Millions: The book tour for The Apprentices, the sequel to The Apothecary, is rapidly approaching, and I understand that you’re working on a third installment. Will this be a trilogy, or an ongoing series?
Maile Meloy: I’m planning to make it a trilogy. But there are so many fourth-in-the-trilogy books out there that it must be tempting. Yesterday a kids’ book club suggested that I write a fourth book that’s the story of The Apothecary from Benjamin’s perspective, rather than Janie’s, and I’m crazy enough to have thought, “Hmm.”
TM: Are you considering it? I can’t help but see a connection between that suggestion and your two adult novels, Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter.
MM: I thought the same thing. I finished writing Liars and Saints thinking I was done with all the characters in it, and then ended up writing a parallel story about them in A Family Daughter. And I was really taken, this year, with Jane Gardam’s brilliant Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. They’re both the story of the same marriage, one novel being mostly the husband’s story and one novel the wife’s. I think Old Filth is a masterpiece on its own, but it was the combination of the two, at the end of the second book, that made me burst into tears. I like the idea of novels that aren’t exactly sequels but companion novels, that each stand on their own but complicate the other. And I’ve written a couple of parallel short stories like that. But I don’t think I want to do it with a novel again.
TM: The Apothecary was your first middle grade novel, and it was also the first time you had written an entire book in the first person. In The Apprentices, you return to the third person, and the main characters, Janie Scott and Benjamin Burrows, are now far flung. Did their distance necessitate the shift, or do you prefer it?
MM: I loved writing in Janie’s voice, and the sense of reality it gave: that this is the true story of what happened when she was fourteen, in 1952. First person is frustrating, in some ways, because everything had to be filtered through Janie’s experience — overheard or noticed or learned by her. But it was really the distance that dictated the shift. I started with the main characters across the world from each other, so switching to third person was a way to include their scattered perspectives. And it felt instantly comfortable, as it’s the way I’ve written novels before.
TM: You’ve described writing the first draft of The Apothecary as somewhat freeing, devoid of the kind of rules and expectations you’ve felt as an adult novelist and short story writer. How did the process of writing The Apprentices compare?
MM: The Apothecary hadn’t come out when I started writing The Apprentices, so I still felt some of that freedom: I didn’t have a sense of what the expectations might be. And I also felt more confident, having done it once. I really love the pacing that writing for kids both requires and allows.
Then The Apothecary came out while I was still writing the second book, so I was talking to kids, and they would ask if certain characters were in the new book, and I’d go home and make sure they were.
TM: I imagine many of your middle grade readers come to book signings with their parents, some of whom are familiar with your adult novels and short stories.
MM: Yes, although sometimes adult readers don’t put it together until they get to the back flap of The Apothecary and realize they’ve read the other books. I’ve also done some mother-daughter book clubs, which I love. The communal family reading that people do now strikes me as very sweet, and one of my goals was to make sure the parents didn’t find it a chore.
TM: Speaking of family, you’re now working in the same medium and genre as your brother, Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. He’s also written a middle grade trilogy, Wildwood: The Wildwood Chronicles. Do you foresee a collaboration?
MM: Colin has such a beautiful collaboration going already with his wife, Carson Ellis, who illustrates the Wildwood books. I love everything they do. And novel writing is a solitary practice for me, at least so far. I love Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the YA novel John Green and David Levithan wrote together, but I don’t quite understand how they did it.
TM: How did the essay in Medium last May, “On Playing With Others,” come about?
MM: That’s funny — that’s about the solitary practice, too. The composer Greg Bolin wrote two short one-act operas based on two of my short stories, and they were being performed together. I wrote an essay about the process, and about how strange it is, when you’re used to sitting by yourself writing fiction, to suddenly have to worry about the availability of opera singers and rehearsal space.
TM: When did you write the short story, “The Proxy Marriage,” which appeared in the New Yorker in May of 2012?
MM: I wrote it right before it was published. I needed some distance from The Apprentices to figure out the plot, so I stopped and tried to write a short story — which I wasn’t sure I could do anymore, being used to the pace of novels. And then it was the closest thing to instant gratification I’ve ever had in writing fiction. Usually I revise forever, and then everything takes so long. But the New Yorker is quick, and I’ll probably never have that kind of turnaround from conception to publication again.
The only thing about “The Proxy Marriage” that wasn’t quick was the digging around in the Montana territorial code to try to find the original source of the law that triggered the story. Montana is the only state that allows for a double proxy wedding, so that neither party has to be present; both can have someone else in their place. My generous father did that digging for me, but we never figured it out. We did find out that he co-sponsored the bill that established the current law, when he was in the Montana legislature in the 1970s, and he’d forgotten about it. I asked him why he thought double proxy weddings were allowed and he said, “Well, why not?” It’s a contract you’re entering into, and if you’re going to allow one proxy there’s no reason not to have two. Which is not to say that Montanans are unromantic, but we’re practical.
TM: Have you taken similar breaks from the third middle grade novel? Has it worked as well?
MM: I took an inadvertent break this summer because I spent a lot of time with my family. When I got home, I started reading the unfinished novel draft from the beginning, to get my head back into it and see where I was. I love having a little time away, and the distance it gives you. I could see where the plot was getting away from me, and where things weren’t hanging together. I was so happy adding pages, before, and now I’m so happy cutting them.
TM: I read everything you write, so when you moved to middle grade novels, I dutifully followed. At first, I found your writing for children to be quite different, but I soon realized that Janie and Benjamin are dealing with a duality that looms large in your adult works. Their lives consist of the normal stuff of childhood, but they’re also contending with simultaneous, albeit extraordinary, realities. Your adult characters often feel as if the lives they’ve lived have had concurrent, imagined ones all along, full of things they long to do but abstain, because the associated risks seemingly promise a chimera will emerge and wreak havoc. It isn’t as if they have regrets they sometimes think about, but rather an ever present temptation.
MM: It’s always been frustrating to me that to choose a path means giving up all the other possibilities. To have a choice at all is extraordinarily lucky, of course, but you choose a career, a city, a partner, to have kids or not to have kids, and you become a different person than you might have been. Other things fall away. To write a novel in which an extraordinary reality is possible in conjunction with ordinary life, in which people can actually fly away or become invisible (and not just want to do those things metaphorically), was an enormous pleasure.
TM: In 2011, you told GalleyCat “I have a novel for adults in mind, but I haven’t found my way into it.” Have you progressed on that novel for adults, or another? Can we hope for another short story before 2013 concludes? I must confess, I fear you won’t come back to us.
MM: Oh, that’s very kind. I have a short story — a real estate horror story — coming out with Byliner in October, just in time for Halloween. And I have a story in xo Orpheus, a really amazing collection of myth retellings that’s out this month. Mine is the Demeter and Persephone myth as a joint custody story (it always struck me as one). The novel from 2011 was a period story. I started doing research for it on the side while working on The Apothecary, and I got too caught up in the real history. It’s always dangerous for me to do too much research in advance; I get overwhelmed by facts and don’t feel as free to make things up. But I’m hoping to forget a lot, and let it settle and ferment, and start again.