When Nothing Happens: On David Bezmozgis
David Bezmozgis published Natasha in 2004. Last year, on the strength of that book, The New Yorker named him one of the twenty best fiction writers under the age of 40. It’s hard to find fault with this decision. Natasha is brisk and lucid and poignant, a wonderful book—neither a collection of stories nor a traditionally plotted novel but a sequence of discrete episodes narrated by a Latvian-Jewish boy named Mark. It is both a coming-of-age story and an assimilation story—a story about becoming a Canadian-Jewish adult in an atmosphere of cultural and linguistic confusion—and its structure is what makes it so good. The book has a refined and essential quality, as if each episode were distilled from the material of a much longer narrative. Everything that happens in Natasha feels like a significant moment. To put it another way, there are no insignificant moments. There is nothing that Bezmozgis might as well have left out.
This is strange, even incomprehensible, given that the critical failure of his new novel, The Free World, is that it makes no distinction between significant and insignificant moments. It’s as dull as Natasha is sharp; baggy where its predecessor is tight as a drum; stuffed to bursting with things that he should have left out. How could this have happened, and why?
The Free World takes place in Rome, in 1978, where the Krasnansky family is waiting for a visa with thousands of other Soviet Jews. Samuil and Emma Krasnansky, the patriarch and matriarch, are in the care of their two sons, Karl and Alec, who are traveling with their families—Karl with his wife, Rosa, and their two sons; Alec with his wife, Polina. They have come from Latvia, and their vague hope is to emigrate to America or Canada. They aren’t sure which, and it hardly matters. Their ambition is the ambition of all emigrants: to leave a bad place in the hope that a new place, any new place, will be better.
But they aren’t going anywhere, because Samuil has failed his medical examination. This is fine with him: he wants to be an inconvenience. He is leaving the USSR because his sons’ desire to emigrate has disgraced him in the eyes of the party, but he remains true to the cause. He is an old Communist official, a Red Army veteran, and he is never going to change—in that sense, he is unfit in mind as well as body. He is what the family must leave behind.
This tension is what the book is about. The idea is a good one, even a very good one, but we can’t enjoy it. Bezmozgis is so anxious to explain who everyone is and how they’ve come to be where they are that the story never gets going. It’s as if he were preparing a testimonial whose authenticity he fears readers will doubt, so he must give a name and a history to characters who appear only once—who appear, in some cases, only to testify to the authenticity of another plot element. It’s all real, he seems to say, but don’t take my word for it: here’s a fellow who was really there!
Some readers may already be familiar with a few of these characters. The August 9, 2010, issue of The New Yorker featured a story by Bezmozgis called “The Train of Their Departure,” which is either a modified version of a subplot in The Free World or a short story subsequently dismembered for inclusion in the novel. We can’t know which, but it doesn’t matter. The story describes the circumstances under which Polina and Alec have come to be married, and the differences between the New Yorker version and the version that appears in the book provide an excellent lens through which to see the many things that have gone wrong in the novel.
The New Yorker version is engaging enough, even if its style can’t compare with anything in Natasha; but more important is that it’s competently paced. It starts in one place and ends in another, takes a reasonable amount of time to cover that distance and gives us some good scenes along the way. It is not complex or intricately plotted. It begins in the factory where Polina works—she is talking about Alec with a co-worker and she is already married. We expect to learn something about that marriage, and we do. The story moves back in time and describes Polina’s relationship with her first husband, Maxim. We learn how they meet, we read about their courtship and their sex life, we learn that Polina gets pregnant, and then we see her subjected to indignities in a public abortion clinic. Only after this do they decide to get married. Later Alec appears, performs his Charming Man routine and gets Polina pregnant again. The story ends after she has decided to have a second abortion, divorce Maxim, marry Alec and travel with him to the West.
The way Bezmozgis treats this story in The Free World is typical of the way he handles all of the novel’s larger plot elements. We enter the story on page nine, when Alec and Polina are on the train to Rome. The expression on Alec’s face reminds Polina of the conversation she had with her co-worker when she and Maxim were married. This is the conversation that begins the New Yorker version of the story, but here it comes as an interpolation or digression. Then we hear a little about Maxim, and we learn that he and Alec, presumably because they are different people, behave and think differently. But here the story is interrupted, and we don’t return to it for seventy-four pages—not until Polina, undergoing a medical examination in Rome, remembers that trip to the abortion clinic in Riga. Following this are several scenes in which Maxim behaves like a nice guy, and then the perplexing line: “Maxim had already talked seriously about marriage.” We haven’t been told—as we are told in the New Yorker version—that they are not already married, so we’re justified in feeling some confusion at this point. As if aware that an explanation is owed, Bezmozgis inserts the courtship sequence here, after the abortion that is its real climax. The chapter ends with the scene in which Polina gets pregnant by Alec, which is the scene that precedes the abortion in the New Yorker version. Twenty-four pages intervene before we learn that Polina and Maxim get married. Seventy-two pages after that, nearly 200 pages since the story was introduced, Alec’s role in all of this is clarified. On it goes. It takes the whole novel to tell the full story.
There are many problems here. Compare the beginning of the abortion scene in The New Yorker—“The punishment was administered by a taciturn doctor in a green-walled hospital clinic”—with the beginning of the same scene in the novel:
It was this antiseptic silence combined with the physical humiliation of being touched with such disdain that made Polina feel as if she were once again back in the green-walled hospital clinic.
The doctor there had been a woman.
There is no urgency in these lines. The scene is suggested, but not demanded, by some events in the narrative present, and then it’s crudely stapled to the end of a chapter where it doesn’t belong. Its plot elements have been incompetently rearranged with a view toward making its incorporation less jarring—the medical examination reminds Polina of the abortion ward, which inspires the recollection—but there is no reason the story must be inserted here, so there is also no reason Bezmozgis should brutalize it in an attempt to make it fit.
Then there’s the problem of tone. The New Yorker version is written in the simple past tense, which is so conventional that we hardly notice it. In The Free World, the story is always presented as backstory, so its temporal relationship to the narrative present must be re-established every time Bezmozgis returns to it. That means he has to render much of it in the past-perfect tense—“I had said,” rather than “I said.” There is nothing wrong with the past-perfect tense, but its purpose is contextualization. It tells us when something is happening with reference to another, more important thing, and it necessarily subordinates the events it describes. Compare, again, “The punishment was administered by a taciturn doctor” with “The doctor there had been a woman.” The scene has a horrifying immediacy in the magazine; in the novel it feels oblique and supplementary.
Most important, Bezmozgis has robbed the Polina/Alec story of its story-ness. It has become a sequence of recollections distributed at intervals throughout the book. Reading it this way is like listening to the first minute of a pop song and then waiting a half-hour to hear the second minute. An hour after that, when the end of the song begins to play, who’s still listening?
All of the backstories and subplots in The Free World are treated the same way. The story of Karl’s mysterious rise in the criminal world, of the family’s ordeal at the border in Chop, of Samuil’s childhood—all of them are taken apart and handed to us piece by piece. Whatever interest they might have had is spoiled by the sense that they are unwelcome and unnecessary digressions from a central narrative that is already maddeningly slow.
At first, it seems like the decision to defer the conclusion of the Polina/Alec story, or to withhold information about the crossing at Chop, is an attempt to give the illusion of dramatic structure to a novel that has run off the rails. This is true, but it’s also true that Bezmozgis digresses from the narrative present in the middle of important scenes. At the beginning of the novel, the family expects to travel to Chicago because Emma’s cousin Shura is living there and has agreed to sponsor their visa application. But when Emma tries to call her—a conversation that will determine the family’s destiny—the narrative is interrupted and we’re subjected to a passage of breathtaking irrelevance in which we learn some facts about Shura. The passage contains sentences like this one: “Shura, the cousin, had met her husband [in Uzbekistan] and, after the war, settled in Vilnius, his town.” The casual observation that “Shura had written about the secondhand car her husband had purchased” generates a paragraph about the car Samuil owned in Riga, which Emma was not permitted to drive. When we finally learn that Shura can’t sponsor them after all, the urgency is gone. Who cares that Emma is now crying? It hardly matters that Bezmozgis digresses once again to tell us how often and under what circumstances she has cried in the past.
Sometimes these interruptions seem compulsive. Between pages 196 and 197, the reader is jerked like a rag doll from a conversation about Hebrew school to a paragraph about Samuil’s medical examination to a discussion Samuil has with a friend to the Soviet annexation of Latvia in 1940. The movement is clumsy and unnecessary, occasioned by nothing more than passing remarks and associations. Bezmozgis is writing like someone attempting to fulfill a length requirement.
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And yet, at the same time I think I know what he’s after, and I think I like the idea. This is not an immigration story at all. It’s a transit story; a story about lives suspended at a moment when everything is uncertain; a story about the insistence of memory, of daily obligations, of private grievances. It is a story about what’s happening when nothing is happening—a story about waiting. But this is a hard thing to do, and Bezmozgis doesn’t do it well. I thought of Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man, a book that Bellow himself claimed not to like but still a good example of a novel about frustration that is not, itself, frustrating. Dangling Man does on every page what The Free World doesn’t do at all. It gives us reasons to keep reading, even if we know that nothing is going to happen.
Bezmozgis is no Bellow, but he might have made some better choices. Dangling Man has a first-person narrator whose manipulation or concealment of information is understandable. The Free World has a third-person narrator who knows the whole story and has no reason to conceal anything. Why won’t he tell the story? I’m left thinking that there is something badly wrong with him. He can hardly walk down the street. He doesn’t know how to enter a room. He pretends to know everything about these people and these places, but he doesn’t know what it smells like in Rome, or when the sun sets, or what the trams sound like. Most important, he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.
Bezmozgis is attempting something unusual here, but The Free World isn’t a risky book. The prose is wooden and the story is flat. Either he doesn’t have the courage to embrace his idea or he doesn’t understand what his idea is, and the finished product looks unfinished—a draft written in a state of hesitation and doubt.