Edith Pearlman won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in fiction last night for Binocular Vision, her satisfyingly fat collection of 34 stories. Although she would not have been my first choice if I had served on the prize jury — Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot is among the five or six best American novels of the past 25 years — Pearlman richly deserves the recognition that she has been denied for so long.
That she was overlooked for the National Book Award last November (in favor a sleepy-headed novel in middle-school prose) was one of the more embarrassing moments for the American critical establishment in recent memory. But such is the state of literary politics today: something like Uncritical Race Theory is the guilty conscience of a good many literary critics.
Not that Edith Pearlman is a writer without identity. She is a Jewish writer. In fact, one of her first published stories appeared in COMMENTARY. In celebration of Pearlman’s award, we are making “Settlers” available for free to her readers and ours. “I didn’t know you were interested in Judaism,” Peter Loy’s daughter says to him. “I’m not interested in Judaism,” Peter replies. “Only in Jews. They’re so complicated. . . .”
He could have been speaking for Pearlman. Now 75, she has been been exploring her interest in complicated Jews (and human beings with other kinds of complicated identity) for three-and-a-half decades. She doesn’t poke fun at the Orthodox or the Holocaust or rabbis or large Jewish families or “settlers” in the disputed territories (the settlers in her COMMENTARY story live in Boston). So her stories are not published by a large New York house, and she doesn’t get the press of a Nathan Englander or a Shalom Auslander.
Pearlman tends to write about middle-aged and middle-class Jews who (in a phrase from her story “Day of Awe”) are “giving their final years to just causes.” Her characters, in short, are familiar secularized liberal Jews, but she writes about them without either mockery or triumphant crowing about their virtuous politics. For her people, as she writes in another story, “Assimilation had become as passé as the jitterbug.”
Pearlman is fascinated by their shaky new commitments and loyalties. They bring little to their human connections beyond the strength of their heart and their willingness to adjust. Or, as she describes one woman’s approach to marriage, in a sentence that is typical of her wry and quiet prose: “She herself had brought to the union a passion for teaching, and also a cigar box of pins and buckles and clips.” The practical and the passionate sit side-by-side in Edith Pearlman’s fiction, and sometimes they are enough, as she lovingly shows, to hold people’s lives together.