Sunday, May 3, 2009

David Bezmozgis: a Successful Paradigm of the Immigrant Short Story

I appreciate Sandy and Becky's response to my post on Aleksandar Hemon. It pleases me that readers of this blog find some of my recommendations helpful

I do want to make a response to Becky's remark about Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis. The book got a lot of publicity when it was released in Canada and the U.S.

So how is it that the stories of 30-year-old Bezmozgis, who immigrated with his family from Latvia to Toronto in 1980, generated such a prepublication buzz? No one had heard of him. Then three stories appeared in quick succession in Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Zoetrope: All Story. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux sent him on an unprecedented prepublication tour. And Canada’s Quill and Squire magazine featured him on the cover.

Bezmozgis was quoted in the Quill and Squire story as saying, “the only way you can try and explain something like this is two things. It’s the quality of the work and it’s connections.”

Since a reviewer perhaps should draw no conclusions about connections and the quality of a work has never been a guarantee of financial success, some speculations about the probable appeal of this work might be in order.

It’s no secret that if you can handle the English language cleverly or facilely and have a multicultural story to tell, book editors will sense sales and sit up and take notice, even if all you have to peddle are short stories. Jhumpa Lahiri, Nathan Englander, and Aleksandar Hemon have proven that in the past few years. (Emphatic exception: I think Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction is very fine. There is nothing facile about it; if you have not read it, you should pick up a copy of her latest, Unaccustomed Earth.)

If you string the short stories around a central group of characters so that your book reads sort of like a novel, you have an even better shot at success.

Since many people say that individual short stories are too hard to read, it also helps that David Bezmozgis’s stories are easy. The prose is straightforward and uncluttered with reflection. The dialogue reads like a film script, clean and economical. And there is just enough of a wry comic tone to make the seriousness of the immigrant experience pleasurable rather than painful.

You also have to have likeable characters. The father of the Berman family is a model of old world silence and dignity. The mother is, if not always stable, supportive. And the boy, at different ages, is just cute enough to be lovable, just tough enough not to be bullied, just horny enough to be believable, and just respectful enough to honor the old ways of his ancestors.

Other familiar elements of the typical immigrant story predictably pop up, for example, ghosts of the old oppressive world. Here, it is a KGB agent accompanying an internationally known weight lifter to Canada. The father tells the son, “This is why we left. So you never have to know people like him.” And there must be some frustrating efforts of the family to be successful, as when the father attempts to set up his own business and is patronized by a more successful immigrant predecessor. Moreover, there should be some lesson about being true to your heritage, as, after punishing the recalcitrant hero, a Rabbi says, “now maybe you understand what it is to be a Jew.”

And, of course there has to be a little sexual initiation, preferably with a more experienced, although not necessarily older, female. In the title story, the hero’s nominal cousin, who at fourteen has already been in porno films in Europe, serves the purpose with salacious insouciance.

So what is the saleable appeal of this book? An easy read, endearing characters, snappy openings, epiphanic endings, multicultural local color, stranger-in-a-strange-land survival, melting-pot political correctness, a little sex, and a serio-comic tone that softens gravity with levity. What’s not to like?

A funny sidenote: After the above review appeared, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux bought an ad in New Yorker, which quoted the following:

"What's not to like?" --Charles May, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

As you all know, one must be very careful with tone.


Becky said...

Well, I guess that answers my question.

david said...


You make “writes well” and “ethnic” into bad things. We all know it’s the job of publishers to sell books, and that they will use whatever promotional tools they can. Certainly these have helped to sell our books, by pushing one of us as a refugee from Appalachia and the other as a stoned WASP. If they sell books, why not? I wish someone had reviewed me with “What’s not to like?”

Charles E. May said...

Yeah, of course you are right, David. Was it Samuel Johnson who said that anybody who writes for any reason other than money is a fool, or something like that. And anyone who writes would love to get the kind of promotional buzz that Bezmozgis got. Honest to God, I hope Wells Tower is making a bundle, for the buzz surround his book has got a lot of people interested in the short story, at least for the next 15 minutes.