Commentary Magazine

The Free Reputation

The Free World:
A Novel
By David Bezmozgis
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 356 pages

In 2004, at the age of 31, David Bezmozgis published a slender collection called Natasha and Other Stories. The linked stories deal with the daily lives of an immigrant Latvian-Jewish family, the Bermans, and their struggles and disaffection as they adapt to life in Canada. The book was greeted with great acclaim. Its title story appeared in the Best American Short Stories 2005, and a second appeared in the following year’s edition. Natasha also won the Guardian’s first book award; and last year, Bezmozgis was included in “20 Under 40”, the New Yorker’s semi-regular survey of the best and the brightest in American literature.

The early years of the preceding decade brought about a bumper crop of post-Soviet Jewish émigré fiction: Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar, and other immigrants launched their careers alongside Bezmozgis. And though Natasha did not display the antic brilliance of Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and though his writing fell short of the stark, crystalline prose of Vapnyar’s collection There Are Jews in My House, his work did share certain qualities with theirs. All three feature thinly fictionalized autobiography, a difficult relationship to Jewishness, an unresolved sense of confusion on the part of old and young alike at the newness of their lives after emigration. In the intervening years, Shteyngart’s unhinged but controlled style has degenerated into shrill and easy satire, while Vapnyar’s once unignorable work has descended into a dismal quietude. Meanwhile, Bezmozgis has seriously attempted to produce a book broader in scope and more sustained in its examinations, and the result is his newest work, a novel called The Free World.

The Free World examines neither immigrant life nor life in the old country, but rather that indeterminate and vaguely nightmarish zone between them. The novel begins in 1978. In the Roman suburbs of Trastevere and Ladispoli, in a series of shabby and inadequate apartments, the Krasnansky family, voluntary emigrants from the USSR, waits for entrance visas to Canada. Samuil, the senior Krasnansky, is a devout Latvian Communist. His sons Alec and Karl are, respectively, an aimless womanizer and a hard-hearted, hard-minded protocapitalist. All three have brought their wives with them. There is Emma, the Krasnansky matriarch; Polina, Alec’s deeply decent wife; and Rosa, married to Karl and the mother of two young sons.

In the six months after their arrival in Rome, Bezmozgis follows the small-scale conflicts that plague the Krasnanskys: Alec’s infatuation with the sister of a local hood, Samuil’s iron-sided refusal to recognize the reality of his new surroundings, Karl’s dabbling in criminality. Money is scarce, work more so, Italy is incomprehensible, the foreign-aid organizations as Byzantine and useless as the apparatus of any Soviet bureau. A stream of fellow emigrants passes through Ladispoli alongside the Krasnanskys, bringing them further grief and stoking the flames of their familial quarrels. The Free World is a pitiless examination of the petty miseries of quasi-exile.

Bezmozgis does not take an easy route out of this morass. The novel’s end finds the Krasnanskys considerably altered by fate but still living in their Italian limbo. There are no border crossings and no homilies—although Bezmozgis, rather curiously, indulges in a random penchant for putting moral-equivalence sermons in the mouths of his characters, especially on the subject of the Zionist project as it relates to the Soviet one. And there is other evidence in The Free World of Bezmozgis’s real talent. He is adept at bringing the past to bear on the present, summoning up Samuil’s horror-filled childhood or Alec and Polina’s courtship to illuminate their present condition, without resorting to belabored exposition. And the various settings—the shabby and shady margins of the Roman sprawl; rural, prerevolutionary Latvia; the innards of a modern factory—Bezmozgis evokes with loving, if perhaps too meticulous, care. He deserves praise for the evident seriousness with which he approached the task of writing this book, and for managing, unlike many writers of short stories, to impart a real, if permeable, structure to a much longer work. The Free World coheres.

And that, sadly, is the most it can be said to do. Bezmozgis does not display in The Free World—as he did not display in Natasha—any particular talent for prose. Even during the book’s more intense moments, his language never rises above the merely serviceable and mawkish, and in places it is simply banal and shamelessly expository: “It was a great morning for a stroll”; “She was eighteen years old…with a figure that seemed to strain the laws of physics, like a glass filled past its brim”; “She felt a contentment she hadn’t known in a long time.”

This workmanlike prose may go some way toward explaining why it is that the book’s central characters, their occasional flashes of genuine personality aside, remain largely confined within their types. Samuil cannot detach himself, in any meaningful way, from the rigid political commitments of his past; Alec’s mingled heartlessness and self-regard are commonplace in the ranks of literary philanderers. And this tin-stamp quality becomes especially notable among the women in the novel, who seem to exist almost solely to provide moral pocket handkerchiefs for their respective men. Even Polina, Alec’s wife, who is granted a segregated narrative stream in the form of letters to a sister still at home, and whom Bezmozgis clearly intends as a counterweight to Alec’s feather-light amorality, does not participate in the central action of the plot to the same degree that Alec, Karl, and Samuil do. All of these failings present themselves in Natasha and Other Stories as well, although there they are accompanied by one still more serious: a constant recourse to easy, schematic symbolism.

It is incontestably true that Bezmozgis is in some sense engaged with ideas, a trope of contemporary critical praise. But that engagement consists of bald schoolmaster’s statements: “It was a kinship with the past,” he writes of Samuil’s reason for rejecting his fellow Jewish exiles, “and a kinship with the past was no kinship for a revolutionary.” Equally incontestable is Bezmozgis’s eye for period details: worn Fascist graffiti in Trastevere, Adidas pants on a young hoodlum outside a body shop. These, however, seem like mechanical overcompensation for the lifelessness of his characters, an attempt at resuscitation. Bezmozgis is by no means a bad writer. He is a mediocre one, however. Why, then, has he been so generously bedecked with laurels? Have we grown so starved for novelty that innocuous and modest books written by authors with unusual biographies can send readers and critics into paroxysms of unwarranted praise?

About the Author

Sam Munson is the author of The November Criminals, now out in paperback.

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