[29 June 2004]
It’s a fundamental question of literary ontology: Which came first, The New Yorker’s publication of a new author’s early story, or the widespread conviction that the author is destined to be the next great writer of his era/age group/ethnic group/nationality? That is to say, does the superstar make the hype, or does the hype make the superstar? In the case of David Bezmozgis, the question is, for the most part, being avoided because everyone is talking about the hype, but no one is saying much about the writer’s work. While one could argue that this is evidence of reputation trumping substance, the real problem is that, when it comes to literary output, there’s just not much to talk about. Even if Bezmogzis’ initial efforts have won the approval of career-making giants such as The New Yorker and Harper’s, it’s difficult to get around the nagging fact that his entire oeuvre consists of one thin volume of seven short stories. That’s a precariously narrow platform from which to judge a writer’s potential, and it’s certainly not an adequate basis for predicting that he will be the next anything.
Bezmozgis’ debut, Natasha: And Other Stories, is a collection of seven partially autobiographical short stories concerning a family of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants in Toronto in the early 1980s. Roman Berman, the patriarch, is a former Soviet athletic trainer who aspires to be a massage therapist in Canada. His son, Mark, a first-grader when the family emigrates, grows up over the course of the seven stories, confronting as he does his identity as a Jew of Soviet heritage cast into an exciting but confusing Western community.
The stories’ narrator, the young Mark Berman, is, regrettably, a spectre who is impossible to pin down. One moment he’s a conscientious first-grader, the next he’s a drug-dealing 16-year-old, the next he’s an intangible shadow, an adult who follows his aged grandfather into a retirement home for no other reason than to provide the reader with eyes through which to view the plot. Mark’s biography is full of such gaping holes—and how could it not be, when it is presented in seven discontinuous chunks, most of which do not even feature him as the central character?—that one is never provided with a coherent portrait. Mark is merely an observer, not a protagonist, and one wonders why the stories’ events must be seen from his point of view. At best, Natasha is a skeletal outline for a novel about Mark Berman. At worst, it’s a sketchy collection of stories centered around a non-character.
The stories are at their best when they explore ground that is not particularly well-trodden, themes that are specifically significant to a family like the Bermans. The concerns of Russian Jews in the wider Western Jewish community are nicely addressed in stories like “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist,” and during Mark’s deeply personal confrontations with legacy and memory (“Choynski”), Jewish identity (“An Animal to the Memory”), and religious tradition (“Minyan”), Bezmozgis’ words wield real power. When the author gets more universal, however, his economy of language allows a less-than-inspired world view to show through. Do we need another account of Soviet oppression and post-Soviet disillusionment (“The Second Strongest Man”), especially one as heavy-handed as this? Aside from the current Western infatuation with immigrant fiction, is there a reason to want one more allegory about an émigré child’s struggle with culture shock (“Tapka”)? The bulk of Natasha, while skillfully—sometimes even beautifully—written, is hardly newsworthy.
The title story—despite its heavy reliance on the crowd-pleasing troika of sex, drugs, and ethnic exoticism—is perhaps the most disappointing of the collection. A conventional coming-of-age tale wrapped in a cloak of New Russian decadence, it concerns the narrator’s erotic awakening at the jaded hands of his 14-year-old, sexually debased cousin, who is freshly arrived from the crumbling Soviet Union. A gritty adolescent fantasy, the story examines the problems of Soviet youth from a position that is, somehow, both naive and cynical. The image of the last days of the empire as a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which children are devoured whole is not a new one, and Bezmozgis does not handle it here with anything approaching subtlety; a much more credible depiction of the situation can be found in Lukas Moodyson’s emotional sledgehammer of a film, Lilja 4-Ever. Moodyson’s film provides a Soviet context that is significantly richer and more convincing than that created by Bezmozgis; this is perhaps not surprising given that, despite the author’s Soviet pedigree, he did not once visit Eastern Europe in the 24 years following his emigration at age seven.
Bezmozgis is undeniably a promising young writer, but now, only 147 pages into his career, he could not be called the new Roth, the new Malamud, or even the new Jhumpa Lahiri. These facile epithets, piled on only because the author is Jewish and was born outside North America, are entirely irrelevant to the few words he has, so far, put down on paper. His breathtaking early success is unfortunate, for he does not deserve—in either a positive or a negative sense—to be subjected to the hyperbolic spotlight of the publishing world. Natasha is evidence of real, if as yet not fully realized, talent, but it would be wise to wait to add Bezmozgis to the literary pantheon until he has written more stories than can be counted on two hands.