by Jean-Thomas Tremblay
Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2015 | 288 pages
In 1897 Benito Pérez Galdós gave a curious speech about “novelistic material” to the Spanish Academy. It was very pessimistic, even apocalyptic, and predicted that the conditions that had previously made possible the masterpieces of Spanish literature were declining due to increases in population, progress in education, and the disintegration of Spain’s vestigial feudalism: “The falling apart of political life is the echo we hear near at hand,” he warned. “Common people and aristocracy are both losing their traditional characteristics […] The distance we still have to go before the basic classes lose their physiognomy will be transversed rapidly.” Insisting that literary art must have enduring “generic types” to bear the fruit of relatable “passions, characters, and language,” Galdós disavowed what he considered in his time a “shapeless agglomeration of individuals drawn from the upper and lower categories, the product, we might say, of the decomposition of both groups.” For literature to flourish, Galdós argued, the society that produces it must be segmented into acutely different character types. A society conditioned to produce quality literature, it is argued, must be a society of static character motifs, of distinctive types, of enduring social roles. Social homogeneity and formlessness, then, is the enemy of literary art.
Galdós’s reactionary censuring of the fin-de-siècle and West, a society characterized by Marx as one where “all that is solid melts into air,” comes to mind, though in contrast, as one reads Edith Pearlman’s most recent anthology of short fiction, Honeydew. Unlike Galdós, who viewed the sloughing off of character distinctiveness, the widespread disintegration of social forms, as precluding story, as paralyzing narrative momentum, Pearlman here fictionalizes a world where the revelation of an underlying social homogeneity and formlessness becomes a core insight of literature. Contra Galdós, here Pearlman fictionalizes the “shapeless agglomeration of individuals” in a distinctively sympathetic and celebratory register. In Honeydew‘s title story, for example, there is a moment when the narrator describes sex between the director of a school for girls and a physician: “Spinster teacher and scholarly physician discarded their outer world selves, joined, rolled, rolled back again, each straining to incorporate into the other, to be made one, to form a new organism.” De-individuation becomes formlessness, the “discarding of outer world selves” becomes a profane yet holy activity.
Part of the richness of Pearlman’s fiction is in how humanity in her portrayal can be both an “agglomeration,” a formless and socially homogenous mass, while at the same time a fecund site of inexhaustible diversity and difference, a vital process of formation and differentiation. This tension is encapsulated here in the image of “Plant,” an unidentifiable botanical anomaly – part succulent and possibly mycotrophic – that centers the story “Blessed Harry”: “Sometimes it produced tiny flowers in hues of lingerie. Sometimes it put out scramblers which crept to the edge of the pot and is integrated. It was probably a hybrid.” A homogenous organism that is prolifically diverse in its functions, Plant points toward Pearlman’s theory of ordinary character as a vital site of both sameness and difference, formlessness and form. As the diverse flowers, scramblers, and fungus-like growths variously emerge from Plant, so do the diverse elements of humanity emerge from its homogenous source: a unifying, primordial and fundamentally material and profane mass. This is not fable or myth – literary enterprises anchored in love of the universal and the enduring form – but more like the shadow that literature casts, a celebration of the ephemerality of form and its persistence en masse through procreation.
Pearlman’s stories explore how the occult root of shared humanity will always sublimely preordain individual distinctiveness from the unique perspective provided by literature. She conveys this poignantly through the juxtaposition of storytelling and insect digestion suggested by the title, “Honeydew.” This word references not the melon but the plentiful crystalized sugary excrement of a desert insect. This honeydew, generally interpreted to be the true substance of the manna provided by God to the Israelites during the journey of the book of Exodus, comes to stand in for fictional stories which, in their plenitude and nourishing quality, are likened to the Coccidae’s abundant excretion of a sugary frost, an abundant material. In their abundance and ubiquity, everyday stories, like the manna they are compared to, are no less holy. It is only through this metaphorical frame that we can understand Emily Knapp, a young anorexic, and her enigmatic obsession with entomology, in particular the insect abdomen that secretes this sugary exuda: “It contains the heart […], the reproductive organs too, […] and it contains most of the digestive system.” In bringing into focus this abdomen that contains the heart, digestion, and reproduction, we are provided with a powerful metaphor for synthesizing the spiritual, profane, and abundant qualities of the stories we tell of ordinary, everyday people and experiences. Indeed, Pearlman gracefully re-sanctifies abundance and fecundity by repudiating modernist literary antipathies toward the mass epitomized by Galdós and, for example, W.B. Yeats’s characterization of the modern world as a “mackerel-crowded sea,” an unfit site for the extra-mundane activity of literary art.
This positive representation of materiality and organic fecundity is displayed powerfully in the first story in the anthology, “Tenderfoot,” about a pedicure parlor; Paige, its proprietor Paige; Bobby, a visiting professor of Art History; and Renee, his ex-girlfriend. On the one hand, Pearlman paints these as stock characters with “relatable passions” of the type Galdós celebrates. Like the stereotypical barber, bartender, beautician (take your pick), Paige is an “expert listener” with a “sad history” who many of her clients are attracted to because she is “easy to talk to.” Bobby is a stereotypical intellectual: acutely perceptive, sensitive, melancholic, and unfeeling. Renee is a stereotypical “blood in a belted raincoat” with a “pretty face” who becomes disturbed by Bobby’s lack of feeling and moral responsibility when they witness an automobile accident and he refuses to stop to help. And yet in the accumulated details and nuance of Pearlman’s telling the reader is reminded of the philosophical and formal unity of the human through stark and sometimes disturbing imagery of organic materiality and ephemerality. After a foot treatment, for example, Bobby, the airy intellectual, marvels at his Self, revealed as formless matter, floating in a foot basin: “A mountain of translucent flakes of skin with here and there a toenail poking out and, on top of the mountain, a large bit of callus she had removed without his feeling a thing. He marveled at this exuda like a small boy proud of his poop.” Despite Bobby’s description here as mere material, as ephemeral form, Pearlman’s language in this passage associates his Self with mountains, a clear evocation of endurance.
Galdós’s speech quoted at the beginning of this review, his disgust at reflecting on the homogenous mass that is us, humanity, forecasts later, more famous literary articulations of the characteristic alienation, fear and disgust elicited by glimpses of our occult plenitude and prolificacy as a species. None of these articulations are more poignant than T.S. Eliot’s famous statement in the The Waste Land, a reflection on the sight of (ostensibly) living masses streaming across a bridge: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” To Eliot’s alienated view of the human mass and perhaps our contemporary angst at the overproduction of the writing workshops (and perhaps) workshop writers, consider Pearlman’s interpretation of the human heart: “A lumpy device with chambers and ventricles and arteries and atriums-atria-looking nothing at all like a valentine. Yet in one of those ventricles, love got born.” Pearlman’s love of the human mass, her insightful reconciliation to the social homogeneity and unity it evinces, counters some cynicism haunting literary culture today, a culture that recoils from the mass into so many shallow eccentricities. Her anthology teaches us a valuable lesson: we should marvel at the exuda that is us; we should acknowledge the holiness of the human mass as its forms come and go. The mass does not eclipse our individuality. Seen in the light of literary form, it is commensurate with it.
Jason Ray Carney received his Ph.D. in Literature from Case Western Reserve University. He is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Christopher Newport University. His fiction has appeared in Beecher’s and The Blue Lake Review.