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?
The title story exemplifies the problem. Midway through his life–and through the collection–Mark meets Natasha, a 14-year-old Russian girl, tough beyond her years. We are in the 1990s. The Bermans have made some money and moved to the suburbs, the wolf no longer at the door. The bear is gone too. There is no more USSR. “Russia is shit,” says Natasha, “but people enjoy themselves.” She has no more moral right to be in North America than, say, a Swahili or a Dutchman. She’s with Mark because Mark’s uncle has married her mother, Zina, more or less sight unseen. Mark is living the life of an alienated Western teenager, in his parents’ basement. “I smoked hash, watched television, read, and masturbated,” he says. Natasha sees Mark’s situation and knows what he needs. “I’ve done it a hundred times,” she says. “If you want, I’ll do it with you.” She climbs onto his mattress.
Natasha needs Mark to get her away from her mother, but he’s too inert to be a good pawn. During a key confrontation, when Natasha needs saving from her mother, Mark retreats. He lacks all commitment. Natasha, using the only power she has, sleeps with his uncle, breaking Mark’s heart and ending his uncle’s marriage to her mother. Natasha winds up with the local hash dealer Rufus, whom she’d met through Mark. Her interest, unlike Mark’s, isn’t in the rebellious aspect of dealing but the economic one. Rufus lives well. When she’d first met him, Mark noticed her casting her cool eyes on his “spotless kitchen, the copper cookware, the living room with matching leather sofas, the abstract art on the walls.” Mark’s scruffy basement doesn’t compare. You imagine Natasha’s mind was made up even then. If she was going to fall, she would land on her feet.
Like all the stories in the collection, “Natasha” seems derived from the author’s own experience: David Bezmozgis came with his parents to Toronto in 1980, more or less as Mark did. Filling in the stories not written in the collection, one can imagine Mark’s hash-smoking dropout phase ending and his going on to a college his parents disapprove of, a Bard or Skidmore, and then, after a stint in, say, a Brooklyn band, becoming the author. Enter the editor in the park. The journey, seen cynically, is from an authority Bezmozgis cannot respect, his parents, toward one he can, the MFAs of America. Somewhere on the journey he learned to write like everyone else.
At this point in our literary history, you don’t have to get an MFA to write as if you did: You only have to read The Best American Short Stories or comparable collections. If Natasha smells of Bezmozgis’s own experience, it reeks of the tricks of the writing-school class–the nice observations, the tucked-in detail that will later come back to matter, the story’s end that resolves the practical but not the emotional action of the story. Of all the Russians, Bezmozgis has learned most from Chekhov, the most Europeanized of Russian writers and the one most admired in writing schools here. He has learned Chekhov’s trick of opening up a story by putting a window at the end that proves in reality to be a mirror. “In the full light of summer, I looked into darkness,” Mark concludes in “Natasha.” “It was the end of my subterranean life.” What exactly does Mark make of Natasha’s treachery beyond feeling resentful? That, in the modern way, is left to us to work out.
The modern short story, of course, is not reinvented by each writer. Still, there is something upsetting in seeing its timid grace spread to the great events that made Jews Westerners. Roman Berman and his family are the heirs of the Jews of Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, but they have lost the full-blooded response of the Schearls in Roth’s great novel. There are many objective reasons why this might be so. 1984 isn’t 1907. The Schearls were part of a movement of millions, the Bermans one of a handful. And the Bermans feel a sense of shame at having shirked their stated destination of Israel. Finally, of course, the West has changed. Mark goes into the basement, while David Schearl goes to the museum. There’s symbolic meaning to that.
Ultimately, though, the timidity of the book does not seem to me to be the timidity of the modern immigrant but the tentativeness of the modern short-story writer. The relationship between style and moment is complex, but it is not hard to imagine Bezmozgis on his journey from refugee to acclaimed first story writer under pressure–not Soviet pressures but the quieter pressures of fictional models–to conform, to adapt, to tell the story their way. This ending of “Natasha,” they say: Don’t give us Mark’s thoughts. Just give us an image that captures those thoughts, the image of him looking into the basement from which he emerged. Don’t embrace any character too closely, and don’t describe any emotion too intensely. Be bored with being bored. It is perhaps a necessary paradox of the process that Natasha has become a highly celebrated story collection, a set of instructions for the next short-story writer who wants to “break in.”
There’s a story in the collection that sounds a different note. In “An Animal to the Memory,” Mark is a student in the seventh grade at a Toronto Hebrew school. The time is after “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist” but before “Natasha.” Mark is in Hebrew school because a discount is still offered to immigrants, a last gasp of refusenik life as cause célèbre. Mark hates Hebrew school and hates being identified as a Jew. As a result, he has become “a tough little bastard,” affecting “a hoodlum persona.” He is suspended for pounding Jerry Ackerman’s head against the ground. “Congratulations,” his Jewish friends in secular school tease him. “You’re the toughest kid in Hebrew school.”
Mark is readmitted the week of Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this day, the basement of the school is transformed by the principal, a fearsome man named Gurvich, whose father was a concentration camp survivor, into a museum of the Holocaust, complete with “photos of Jews in cattle cars, starving Jews in ghettos, naked Ukrainian Jews waiting at the edge of an open trench…sculptures of flaming Stars of David, sculptures of piles of shoes, sculptures of sad bearded Polish rabbis.” The principal’s father is there to inscribe copies of his memoir with the words: “Yizkor; al tishkach! Remember; don’t forget.”
What can Mark’s rebellion signify amid this horror? Ackerman finds his moment for revenge and shoves Mark into the glass candle that commemorates the dead from Czechoslovakia. It breaks, a new Kristallnacht. Mark pounces on Ackerman’s friend and chokes him. Mark had been threatened with expulsion if he repeated his animal-like behavior, but the punishment he gets is worse. Gurvich takes him down alone to the museum, where, grabbing him by the neck, he forces him to yell “I’m a Jew” until he dissolves into tears. “I was standing in the middle of the hallway…while Gurvich nodded his rabbinical head at me,” Mark remembers. “When he was done nodding, he turned away and opened the double doors leading up to the stairs. Halfway out, before closing the doors, Gurvich looked back to where I hadn’t moved. “Now, Berman, he said, now maybe you understand what it is to be a Jew.”
“An Animal to the Memory” is not subtle like the other stories in this collection. Maybe that I prefer it is just a version of the mistake Jerry makes when he pulls out his Holocaust album–Reviewer to Bezmogis: be more Jewish. It is a luxury of the living to think about the dead. But “An Animal to the Memory” takes on a moral responsibility the other stories in this collection don’t. It says that while characters are free to act as they please, the writer, like Gurvich, cannot. He cannot ignore horror and take his pleasure in small things. Big events require a bigger response until there is no one left to remember them. “An Animal to the Memory” answers the question every writer in Bezmozgis’s shoes should be asking, the one that to my mind Nathan Englander took on with such commitment: When the generations of Jews who were victimized by the totalitarian despots of the mid-twentieth century die off, how will we remember them?