I am fascinated by immigrant narratives. Not so much because I’m taken with the experience of migration, but because I am interested in the ways in which a writer can utilize common events, framed by cultural alienation and poverty, as points of extreme tension within a story. It is quite common for such narratives to linger in the leanest of times, and abruptly terminate once the characters begin to assimilate. In Natasha, David Bezmozgis does not make that move. Instead, the last two stories in this collection, which sparkle alongside the others, explore what is at stake for those who have relived the financial stressors and now grapple with the repercussions of what it means to have assimilated, all while attempting to locate what is left of one’s identity.
Bezmozgis loads each sentence with information, and interesting details that are performing a number of functions at once. This is the kind of prose that makes short stories hum. A lot of this book consists of expository material, and this can be a dangerous thing as the reader may become bogged down in a morass of prose that neither advances plot nor develops character. Bezmozgis is smart about writing his exposition and skillfully weaves in the details that delight and interest the reader while constantly revealing more about the characters and complicating them. Add to that a talent for knowing when to insert dry, deadpan dialogue, and the story crackles right along.
It is rare for me to come across a collection that I feel is strong across the board. Natasha is a book of stories that is fully unified: thematically, stylistically, and structurally. In fact, one of the reasons this book works so well is that while Bezmozgis calls this a collection of stories, it is effectively structured as a novel. The stories are always told in first person, by the character of Mark Berman, and the narrative follows him through different periods of his life in a linear fashion. So, in the first three chapters, we follow along, as the Berman family struggles to survive and is assimilated into their newly adopted culture. In the final two chapters, we see them financially established in a middle class life, and the focus shifts to the agony and awkwardness that comes with growing up. It is in these middle passages that the protagonist is struggling with the immigrant paradox. He wants to retain some of his religious and cultural heritage but is simultaneously trying to fit in. One of my favorite passages illustrating this point occurs when the protagonist brings Natasha, his newly arrived fourteen-year-old cousin, over to meet his drug dealer, and intellectual mentor, Rufus:
I noticed Rufus looking at her.
– My interest, I assure you, is purely anthropological.
– The anthropology of jailbait.
– She’s an intense little chick.
– She’s Russian. We’re born intense.
– With all due respect, Bermen, you and her aren’t even the same species (90).
As a young man trying to fit in, Mark wants to mask or obliterate his Jewish and Russian identity. Later, as he matures, Mark comes to understand that they are things which he will have to fight to keep alive if he is to maintain any kind of comprehension of where he came from. Natasha is a strange symbol of his homeland, and the stark contrast between Russian and Canadian reality, as well as that of the working and middle class. As soon as they meet, Natasha initiates sexual interest and activity with Mark. He is woefully ill equipped to understand the implications of such a relationship. Mark is sixteen, chronologically older, but Natasha has been involved with prostitution, and pornography since the age of twelve; subsequently, she possesses the jaded maturity of a woman in her late thirties. All of this comes to a head when Natasha runs away from home and finds herself on the street. She becomes angered when the Mark does not react in a decisive or mature fashion to her plight. Of course, the character of Mark Bermen is hardly capable of grasping what she has been through or what it has done to mature her. For her part, Natasha can only see Mark’s inability to act as a kind of betrayal, and neither character can grasp the others mental or emotional state.
Of course, by naming Natasha a collection of stories, the author is free from the burden of unifying the piece in a seamless fashion. But I feel as though this book approximately accomplishes this in its dealing with complex themes that evolve and mature with the protagonist. For example, Bezmozgis utilizes the “Natasha” chapter to mature the protagonist in such an alarming and organic way that the reader does not feel as though there are large gaps when the stories move from the mid eighties, to the nineties, and beyond. After Natasha, it seems that Mark realizes his identity as a Russian is something that he has little hope of ever really sustaining in a meaningful fashion; the text is ambiguous about what kind of cultural connections he will maintain going forward. However, the character clearly falls back on religious tradition, and the Jewish tradition is one that is long accustomed to being in a state of diaspora. In the end, it is interesting that the author gestures towards a return to religion as a means of maintaining identity; though Bezmozgis complicates this return by demonstrating religion will have similar concerns as it grapples with cultural shifts in what is morally acceptable.