The reviewer’s galley of Natasha, David Bezmozgis’s short-story collection about a Russian émigré family in Toronto, begins with words not from the writer but the publisher. “The summer before last,” writes the editor of the collection, “on a park bench in Union Square, a friend handed me a typescript of the story “Natasha”…. [The author] had never sent his work to agents or magazine editors.” This anecdote, so reminiscent of the exchanges of samizdat manuscripts in the old Soviet Union, makes the reader hold his breath with excitement. Will Bezmozgis’s book be special? Forbidden in some way? Or at least out of the ordinary? Alas, there is no reason I can see why Bezmozgis had been hitherto shut out of the American short-story mill. This is a slim, well-observed collection, but it lacks span or muscle. Critics have mentioned Natasha in the same breath with Nathan Englander’s remarkable For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, but it doesn’t bear comparison. It lacks the intelligence of that book, its inventiveness and its commitment to memory. While Natasha covers the same territory, the wave of horrors the Jews suffered in the last century, it is just another short-story collection, a standard product of the American short-story sensibility, a prisoner of a form that has become as ossified as nineteenth-century opera.
Take the second story in the collection, “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist.” “Roman Berman” is narrated by Roman’s son Mark. Roman had trained weight lifters in Riga, a prestige occupation. But in Toronto he works at a chocolate factory and gives massages after hours. He has gotten a masseur’s license, passing an exam in a language that “was more an enemy than an instrument.” Now he finds that he lacks that most Western of skills, the ability to build a business. The Bermans are not religious, but having grown up in the USSR, they recognize authority. So Roman and his son go to a local rabbi, who tells the father to advertise. They leaflet the neighborhood.
One leaflet reaches Harvey Kornblum, a doctor. Kornblum invites the Berman family to dinner. They assume the doctor is a step on the way to business success, though of what sort they can’t be sure. They arrive, overdressed, with an apple cake Mark’s mother has baked. Already waiting is another Canadian Jewish couple, Jerry and Shirley, and another overdressed immigrant couple with a child. The Kornblums and their circle collect émigré Jews; it makes them feel generous and their friends admire it. “This was 1983,” as Mark notes, and Jewish émigrés are still “a cause…. We had good PR. We could trade on our history.”
The dinner that follows is a series of small incomprehensions. Jerry shows the Bermans pictures of his relatives who died in the Holocaust, trying to remind himself that history matters. This is what the Bermans are trying to forget. The apple cake Mrs. Berman baked is declined. The Kornblums, it turns out, are kosher. Too Jewish for Russia, the Bermans are not Jewish enough for Toronto. Mark espies his father giving Mrs. Kornblum a freebie workover in her bra. The implication is not sexual, but unsexing.
“Roman Berman” has its moments. It’s a good illustration of the Bermans’ complicated predicament in the New World, where they do not fit neatly into any of the categories that could help them: They are less refuseniks than economic refugees. They got out of Russia by claiming they wanted to go to Israel, a fact they don’t mention to the Kornblums. Trading on PR is a tricky business. The upset a young boy feels at the impotence of his parents–a stock moment in short stories, to be sure–is nicely carried forward. But the story, like the rest in Natasha, is of the extended vignette variety. Let me introduce you to a world; let me show you a small moment of pain in it. There is no energy or surprise to the close, just light sadness. “My mother handed [the apple cake] to me and pointed down the street toward a Dumpster,” the story concludes. “She did not need to say to run.”
Mark is at the center of all the stories in this collection, and I think he’s the problem. He begins in the first story as a boy and ends in the last as a man. His psychological development is the traditional one in reverse: He begins experienced and ends innocent. He starts a tiny, wide-eyed witness to the century and winds up naïve, cosseted, protected by the cushion of Western rights and objects he learns to take for granted. That Mark goes from at least potentially interesting to typical could, in another writer’s hands, be a great strength. Here it’s a weakness, a weight on Bezmozgis–what can you do with someone whose main goal is not to see too well or feel too much?