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Natasha and Other Stories

by David Bezmozgis

Last May, David Bezmozgis published his first stories in Harper’s and The New Yorkeripso facto, he is now the next big thing in Canadian fiction. A third Bezmozgis story was published in Zoetrope – a literary magazine published by the Coppola family, who gave us the recent Oscar-winner, Lost in Translation, directed by Sofia Coppola. Lost in Translation was an interesting small film by a gifted young artist – and a textbook example of how hype can transform a promising but still-immature talent into the Next Big Thing. Which brings us back to Bezmozgis, about the same age as Coppola and himself a budding filmmaker, though currently working in the less trendy medium of short fiction.

Bezmozgis’s slim first collection of stories features the three mentioned above, plus four others. Together, these seven loosely linked tales trace the coming of age of Mark Berman, a young Latvian-born Canadian growing up in Toronto.

Conventional in its chronology, the collection opens with “Tapka,” which describes how a six-year-old Mark – distracted as he learns to swear in English – fails to save a pet dog from an oncoming car (I will leave the reader to mull over the symbolism here). By the collection’s mid-point, Mark is a callow 16-year-old in love with his 14-year-old cousin, Natasha, who introduces him to sex, and to the frightening reality some children face in the new Russia. By the last couple of stories, Mark is a young adult, doing what he can to help as his grandparents and their generation face old age and death.

It’s not hard to see what editors like about Bezmozgis’s writing. He is a skillful storyteller, packing his brief tales with plot twists, quick revelations, amusing characters, all rendered in near-flawless prose. (Perhaps his work in film, with its emphasis on narrative clarity, helped him develop the clarity in his writing.)

Also important: the author is willing to mine his immigrant background for the cultural details – in this case, the Russian nicknames, the traditional apple cake recipes, the ancient religious rituals – that publishers find so alluring these days. This he does with great sensitivity, capturing both the excitement and the uncertainty inherent in the immigrant experience.

Bezmozgis’s voice is characterized by a gently ironic wit that underscores the pathos of his characters and situations, inviting sympathy and identification, never derision. In “Natasha,” to cite an extreme case, Bezmozgis infuses a genuinely tragic tale with just the right amount of levity. He uses sensitive humour to convey sadness where a self-serious, moralizing tone could easily have turned exploitive. There is no denying that the collection has several moments of intuitive brilliance, particularly at the stories’ traditional epiphany-style endings. Through the music of language and the language of symbol, Bezmozgis drives home the mystery and complexity of the most mundane-seeming events.

Which isn’t to say that this book entirely lives up to the buzz it has generated. A colleague of mine who’d read some of the stories remarked that he kept expecting them to conclude with a list of exam questions, as in a student anthology, about their various themes and strategies. I know what he means: there is a sense here that Bezmozgis has studied and mastered the old-fashioned literary short story, in the way that one masters a language, or a sport. The above-mentioned epiphanies are sometimes brilliant, but epiphany itself is a rather careworn device. Bezmozgis’s plots are conventionally realistic and plainly autobiographical.

Most problematically, the book’s overarching progression courts cliché: the young, sensitive artist gradually initiated into adulthood, coming to terms with his identity, with his relation to his cultural group, and with sorrow and death. This has all been done before, many times, if not always so elegantly.