Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis

Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 147 pages, 2004

Rating: 7/10

Reason for Reading: It was featured in Time Magazine, and since the author is from Toronto, I thought it might be worth checking out.

Synopsis: A collection of seven short stories that trace the formative years of Mark Berman (and his family), who immigrated to Canada from Russia when he was six years old. The Bermans must try to earn a living in a new culture, in a country they don’t yet understand, while Mark faces growing up – not so much as an outsider, but as someone deeply enclosed in his Russian-Jewish roots, whether he’d like to be or not.

Why you should read this book: In a seemingly endless rotation of immigration novels, the most attention-grabbing thing about Natasha is how much it concentrates on Mark as an individual and as a part of a family rather than the struggle for outside acceptance. Mark isn’t being bullied at school for being different. Instead, he’s doing the awkward dance of push-and-pull with his family in an attempt to discover how much of his heritage he wants to keep in himself as an individual. Although there’s nothing magnificently new or exciting about the collection, it’s certainly sufficient to keep the pages turning for an afternoon. The best story isn’t (the trashy and lurid) “Natasha,” but “Minyan,” in which Mark takes a big step into his grandfather’s life after his grandmother passes away. It’s subtle, with Bezmozgis showing the pain, confusion, and anger the various characters feel without beating the reader over the head with it, or resorting to corny sentimentality. Some of the hype over Bezmozgis seems a little premature, but he shines in the stories later in the book.

Why you should avoid this book: Most of the collection feels a little too paint-by-numbers in its selection of episodes in Mark’s life. Mark learns about responsibility; Mark discovers (and rediscovers, as an older, wiser person) the significance of death; Mark has his first sexual encounters. Even the ‘twists’ in the stories likely wouldn’t be that surprising even if the reader had only gotten through the first two pages of each story. Such well-trod storylines demand a certain beauty and quality in the language to elevate them from the ordinary, but Bezmozgis’ writing is too everyday and plain to take his stories to the next level. The stories don’t end with a bang of insight as you might expect from a short story – they peter out like a comedian who’s forgotten the punchline to a joke. The collection finishes strongly with “Minyan,” but Bezmozgis seems to need a few more years of development until we can find out what he’s really capable of creating.

Opening paragraph:

Goldfinch was flapping clotheslines, a tenement delirious with striving. 6030 Bathurst: insomniac scheming Odessa. Cedarcroft: reeking borscht in the hallways. My parents, Baltic aristocrats, took an apartment at 715 Finch fronting a ravine and across from an elementary school – one respectable block away from the Russian swarm. We lived on the fifth floor, my cousin, aunt, and uncle directly below us on the fourth. Except for the Nahumovskys, a couple in their fifties, there were no other Russians in the building. For this privilege, my parents paid twenty extra dollars a month in rent.

Fabulous quotes:

Aside from the Ping-Pong and the pool tables, Kornblum’s basement also had a big-screen television and a wall unit full of board games and books. In the corner, one of his kids had assembled the complete Star Wars Death Star. All the Star Wars figures were there including Ewoks. I went over to the Ping-Pong table. A paddle lay on top of a ball. I picked up the paddle and looked over at Simon. Simon didn’t appear interested in Ping-Pong. He was inspecting the Death Star. In Russian, I asked him if all that stuff his father said really happened. Are you calling my father a liar? he said, and picked up an R2-D2 doll. He picked up another toy and stuffed them both down his pants. What doesn’t this rich bastard have, he said.

On those mornings I accompanied my grandfather back to his new apartment, where we drank tea and played checkers. The new apartment was slightly smaller than the old. The brown sofa had been sold and replaced with a blue one. The brown sofa hadn’t folded out; the blue one did. (Now, in the event of familial tragedy, my mother and aunt wouldn’t have to spend the accursed nights on the living room floor.) The bedroom remained identical and in the kitchen were the same chipped plates and the same enamel Soviet bowls good for warming soup. I would spend a few hours with my grandfather, his only visitor all week. The change of locale hadn’t done much to improve his social situation. For every reason to leave his apartment he could always find ten to stay where he was.

Also recommended: Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger; Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs; The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Also by this author: Natasha is Bezmozgis’ first book.

Fun tidbit: Bezmozgis has a background in film that has seen him produce two documentaries, including his most recent work, The Genuine Article, which is about how Bay Street law firms conduct their recruiting practices.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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