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.