Book Review: Of tale and teller

Many of Edith Pearlman’s stories deal with Jewish and Israeli content, and are set in Godolphin, a fictional suburb based on Brookline, Massachusetts.

Edith Pearlman (photo credit: SUZANNE KREITER)
Edith Pearlman
(photo credit: SUZANNE KREITER)
There are many career trajectories to gaining recognition, but it is rare for an artist to receive her biggest accolades when she is nearing 80. Yet Edith Pearlman, author of the acclaimed new story collection Honeydew, is finally getting the widespread recognition that had previously eluded her.
At age 78, Pearlman has published four previous volumes of short fiction and has consistently had stories in the Best American Short Stories anthology – numbering more than 250 published stories. She recently gained widespread recognition with her last volume, Binocular Vision, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was nominated for the National Book Award.
Her stories are full of the deft observation and sage awareness that only someone of her talents – and her years – could wield. Describing a dying woman who seems to have lived only to procure, Pearlman writes in “Assisted Living,” “Was it envy oozing there? This spoiled Muffy had known what she wanted and had acquired it. What a rare accomplishment.
And the objects of Muffy’s affection repaid that affection just by being there, trustworthy, trusting.”
Pearlman, who spent a year living in Jerusalem in the late 1990s, has written a number of stories dealing with Israelis and Jewish content. Most of these stories take place in Godolphin, a fictional suburb based on Brookline, Massachusetts, where Pearlman dwells in real life. In a 2012 interview with Hadassah Magazine, she explained her relation to the invented town: “On the map, Godolphin is exactly coincidental with Brookline.... But I have altered it, added to it, distorted it, peopled it, so that it no longer belongs to the citizens of Brookline, it belongs to me.”
Most residents of Godolphin understand norms of behavior, but not Daphna, the Israeli-born heroine of “Cul-desac.”
Daphna pursues her neighbors to give them her latest news and information, while they attempt, with varying degrees of success, to avoid her. The story opens, “Daphna invaded and then detonated wherever it suited her.” Explaining her customs to the non-Jews around her, she says of Friday night dinner, “Every family, the godless, the frum [religious], they all sit down together Erev Shabbat. To interrogate each other. It’s our tradition.”
Her “intensity,” one of her neighbors says, “makes you feel charred.” In the end, after the family goes back to Israel to forestall a liaison between their oldest daughter and her non-Jewish beau, the neighbors, sitting together at a meal as they never did before the arrival of Daphna and the flames of her intensity, come to realize something about their relationships that they never noticed before.
The story “Fishwater” is the tale of Toby, a writer of “ficto-historiographia” who is so successful that she is able to leave teaching and New York to purchase a home on Lake Piscataqua in New England. Her books are “able to imagine time and place and person so fully that they are as good as real – or better. History as diversion.” In fact, as the story unfolds from the point of view of Toby’s nephew Lancelot, we come to understand just how she has created a life imagined so it is “as good as real or better.”
Interlaced with the tale is the story of Toby’s friend Franz Sztamar, seemingly the last of his line. The writer tells her nephew the story of Franz’s escape from the Holocaust in Hungary: His mother dropped him out of a window, and he survived the war in the woods. She asks, “Could I offer that story to the world, Lance? What could I add to it that would not degrade it? Winged soldiers, Dutchmen poking needles into flowers, scamps on the docks of Smyrna – they are my material, history as diversion, the fellow said. They are my antidote to the unbearable past.”
Pearlman herself manages to turn fairytale plots into reality and reality back into literature with clever imagination and ideal word choice, each time.
There are a number of other Jewish themes and motifs in the volume. In the title story, an anorexic young woman, Emily, wants to “become a bug and live on air,” as her father states. Emily’s bug research leads her to the understanding that “the manna, which Exodus describes as a fine frost on the ground with a taste like honey, was thought to be a miracle from God, but it was really Coccidae excrement.” The description of how the bugs process the excrement continues, and the narrator tells us, “Nomads still eat it and relish it. It is called honeydew.”
Essentially this story is about how one thing can become something else – how what is excrement in one situation can be manna in another. In the words of the story “Sonny,” about a vegetable man’s dying young son and the Margolis family, which observes the tragedy, “Transformation was the game: just what the Margolis girls were looking for.”
In an interview about the role of Judaism in her writing, Pearlman has said, “I am Jewish born and bred, I have lived in Israel, some of my best friends are Jews.
This history and attachment certainly aid memory, observation, dream, invention, pretense and theft. But I do not feel I am continuing a tradition or conducting a conversation. However, in this as in all of writers’ statements about their work, trust the tale, not the teller.”
In reading her tales, I am pleased to report, I trust both tale and teller. If you are looking for tales that are wonderfully crafted on both the sentence level and the plot level, as well as connected with Jews and Jewish ideas, you have a treat in store with this book – and any other of Pearlman’s five volumes you can look forward to reading.