Purgatory Lit

David Bezmozgis writes great books about waiting around.

David Bezmozgis

David Bezmozgis’ debut story collection, Natasha, met with the sort of critical reception that even grandiose adolescents are too realistic to expect. Published in 2004, it was a New York Times Notable Book, was nominated for the LA Times First Book Award, and won the Toronto Book Award (among other prizes). Stories from the collection also appeared in the various magazines that bother to run fiction (Zoetrope, Harper’s). More recently, The New Yorker included him on the roster every young writer dreams about: its 20 under 40 list, in June 2010. If that final accolade seemed a little much last summer—six years after the release of Bezmozgis’ only book-length work—his new novel, The Free World, makes it seem prescient.

Bezmozgis’ bailiwick is ex-pat-Jews. Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1973, he immigrated to Toronto with his parents in 1980, and he draws on this émigré experience for creative material—sometimes very directly. Natasha features Mark Berman, who was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1973 and immigrated to Toronto with his parents in 1980. Those stories pick up when the Bermans have just arrived in Canada and are getting acclimated. Bezmozgis’ new novel feels like a prequel: In The Free World, the Krasnanskys—another family of Soviet Jews—have just left Riga, and have arrived in Rome en route to Canada. It is unclear how long this layover will last, and I don’t think I’m spoiling the novel by revealing that we never see the Krasnanskys reach North America. So although immigration lends itself to tidy, Aristotelian narrative arcs—with a built in beginning (departure) and end (arrival)—what stands out in the novel, and is also detectable in the stories, is Bezmozgis’ insistence on being anti-tidy, anti-closure. He specializes in intermediate states, and practices what one might call purgatory lit.

A signature story in Natasha, for example, dramatizes the act of waiting. In “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist,” Mark’s father, who once trained Olympic weightlifters, has just signed a lease for a one-room office where he plans to work as a private masseur. If the scheme works out, Roman will leave his miserable job at a chocolate factory. If it doesn’t, the family might have to reapply for welfare. The stakes are high, and the early indicators aren’t good: Roman’s having trouble attracting clients, and the business seems to be “grinding down to a state of terminal inertia.”

Worried, the Bermans take to amateur advertising, distributing informational flyers. This gives way to “a new phase of waiting,” with every ring of the telephone carrying “the potential for salvation.” They’re on tenterhooks an “interminable week” before finally receiving a call from Dr. Kornblum, a fellow Jew who seems interested in helping out Soviet émigrés. He invites the family to his house for dinner but concludes the meal without indicating whether or not he’ll actually refer clients to Roman’s business. As with many stories in the collection, Bezmozgis ends inconclusively, the fate of the one-room office hanging in the balance. Virginia Woolf’s assessment of Anton Chekhov—a master of uncertainty who popularized trailing off—applies equally well to Bezmozgis; Chekhov leaves us, she wrote in The Common Reader, with “the feeling that … a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it.”

The Free World sustains the in-limbo quality of “Roman Berman” throughout a more rambling, ambitious family saga. Bezmozgis branches out from Mark Berman’s first-person narration in Natasha to include the voices of several different members of the Krasnansky clan: Samuil (the patriarch), Alec (his 26-year-old son), and Polina (Alec’s new wife). The result is a more heterogeneous take on life beyond the Eastern bloc, and to go along with it, more humor than a somewhat earnest Mark brought to Natasha. (In one hilarious scene, Alec—who doesn’t take himself, or anything, seriously—becomes convinced that a prospective employer is propositioning him, and looks around for a quiet spot inside a lobby where they can have sex. “Some people were good with numbers, others never forgot a face, others still had perfect pitch—as for himself, he could usually find a decent, serviceable place to copulate.”)

A more traditional novel (not that such a thing still exists) might end with the Krasnanskys crossing the border from the Soviet Union into the Capitalist West; or if it started there, it might end with their deliverance to North America. Instead Bezmozgis’ characters remain literally neither here nor there, biding their time through various phases of waiting (as Mark Berman might put it), waiting for housing, waiting to see immigration officers, waiting to leave.

As if coping with one indeterminate process after another weren’t enough, the characters also grapple with the realization that they cannot choose their own endings. The Krasnanskys think, at first, that they’ll settle in Chicago. When their sponsorship falls through, they try for Toronto, instead—a major choice made arbitrarily, in 10 minutes, in a stairwell. “What do we know about [Canada]?” asks Rosa Krasnansky, a relatively minor player, who’s married to Alec’s brother Karl. “What do we know about anyplace?” answers Karl, a practical guy incapable of sentimentality. “You watched the Olympics. You liked what you saw of Montreal. And in 1972 they also showed something of Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver.” (He seems to be talking about hockey games.) Unsurprisingly, they have no control over their date of departure. That’s up to the Canadians.

Samuil, meanwhile, is preoccupied with his lack of control over what one might call his personal narrative arc. He grew up a true believer in Communism, fought the fascists during World War II, and ascended the Party hierarchy. Now he’s experiencing a terribly disappointing postscript: He left the Soviet Union only reluctantly (his driver denounced him), and in Rome he feels “obsolete,” spending more and more time reminiscing—thinking back to the heady years when he discovered Communism, and his cousin, Yankl, took another path, joining the Zionist movement. After the Soviets took over, they deported Yankl, separating the cousins forever.

Samuil recalled his cousin’s words from the final night. He had bet on one horse, while Samuil … had bet on another. That night it had seemed that Yankl’s horse had lost. Nearly forty years later, this was no longer so. Now it seemed instead that Yankl had prematurely conceded the race. But the race had continued. The horses went around and around the track indefinitely, switching places. The race was never lost or won. All that happened was that, in the interim, men died. The trick was to die at the right moment, consoled by the perception of victory. More likely than not, Yankl had died too soon. As for himself, Samuil thought, he would die too late.

The formulation that life happens “in the interim” is classic Bezmozgis. It is also a theme straight out of Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, in which the critic argues that “men, like poets, rush ‘into the middest,’ in medias res, where they are born; they also die in mediis rebus, and to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems. The End they imagine will reflect their irreducibly intermediary preoccupations.” As Samuil’s reflections poignantly reveal, he is perfectly aware that a neatly bookended life is a mere trick, a fiction. Nevertheless he knows the script that would have consoled him: born early enough to see Communism rise, dead early enough not to know it failed and that Zionism, of all things, was less of a pipedream. It’s not the finality of death that’s tragic so much as the fact that, since one cannot choose when it happens, it rarely provides a proper happy ending.

Naturally The Free World doesn’t have a proper happy ending, either, which isn’t to say it feels unsatisfying. Bezmozgis told The New Yorker in his 20 under 40 interview that “a piece of fiction” must “have at its core some kind of irretrievable loss.” That’s certainly true of The Free World, and the source of its emotional resonance. Bezmozgis closes very much in the messy middle of the story, before the departure from Italy and with the knowledge that various family relationships are in flux. At the same time, with the future all hazy uncertainty, he imparts a more definitive sentiment, that what’s in the past (the USSR, for one) is very much gone for good.