Monday, August 13, 2007

David Bezmozgis's "The Proposition"

Back to reading magazines--I have a little catching up to do, as the next New Yorker will probably show up before I've posted about the last one.

I'd never read anything by David Bezmozgis, a Latvian-Canadian writer and filmmaker, but this new story in Harper's looked promising, on account of an excellent title and the dialogue indicated by little em-dashes, which for some reason seems aesthetically comforting to me, these days. In addition, I once did a no-quote-marks book myself and was surprised how bent out of shape a few people got about I feel a kinship.

Anyway. The story is about a physical therapist, an immigrant from someplace, we imagine, not terribly far from Russia. He has set up shop in Toronto and done well for himself being an honest businessman, but his teenage son doesn't understand him and some sleazy people want him to provide a front for their prostitution business. That's the proposition--that he take some easy dough for this purpose. Meanwhile a more recent immigrant from the same place wants to buy his old car.

We don't find out if he accepts the proposition (well--he rejects it. But we know the pimp will be back); rather, in a nice writerly sleight of hand, we see him refuse to sell his car to the recent immigrant, even though he's only 150 bucks short and reminds the therapist of himself, back in the day. And the teenage son is angry at him for not giving the guy the car. But, in the end, the therapist thinks,

It was for his son's own good. One day he would appreciate what his father had done [...] Life was painful and hard, and it did you no good to pretend otherwise. This was what he needed to understand.

The end.

Oh, the irony!!! I doubt I'm alone finding this ending a little unsatisfying, given that we have seen this very transferrence played out about a zillion times over the past 75 years of immigrant-themed fiction. Let me say that, overall, I like this story pretty well--the pimp and the prostitute who visit the physical therapist's office are particularly terrific--but it seems styleless in delivery and overly familiar in tone.

The therapist, by the way, is Roman Berman, apparently the subject of a previous story of Bezmozgis's, from a book of stories which James Wood digs big time, and which he compares to the stories of Chekhov and refers to as "true examples of storytelling." Hmm. I realize that we are supposed to recognize Wood as the arbiter of all things literary, but this seems like a stretch to me, at least based on this piece. It's good, but the reason Chekhov is good is that he is unmistakeably Chekhov at all times, whereas Bezmozgis, at most times, could be anyone at all.

That said, the anyone he might be is a pretty good writer, and perhaps I would like more of him. I'll check out Natasha and Other Stories but resist, for now, the mesmerizing power of the Woodman's cry.


—T. said...

I find reading Cormac McCarthy, Frank McCourt, et al, attractive because of no quotation marks. If you can follow the story, and it's well done — the writing, not your dinner — you eventually stop expecting them. And speaking of em-dashes Jonathan Carroll uses them quite a lot, however, in many cases it irritates me. And now I'm terrified to sign as I usually do, because I have a silly habit of putting an em-dash before the T in my name, followed by a really pointless period.

jrlennon said...

The reason I did it was the subject matter of the book--it took place on a failing ranch. I wanted the dialogue to seem like just another part of the landscape--for it to blend in with the narrative.

Also if you like Ulysses, you like the dashes, and I like Ulysses. Was that the first time anybody did that?

Pete said...

I still haven't read any Chekhov (that sound you hear is me slapping my own face) but did read Bezmogis' debut collection. Suffice it to say that if Wood's assessment is at all accurate, I won't bother getting around to Chekhov anytime soon.

rmellis said...

Pete -- Chekhov is really really funny. You will like him. His greatness comes from his personality.

The most well-known stories are the less funny ones, for some reason.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, that's true. One of my favorites is a sort of novella nobody ever seems to mention--"My Life," about a hippie-ish back-to-the-land ne'er-do-well and the father he is disappointing. A great family argument scene at the end.

Chekhov! Good god, I'm certainly glad James Wood didn't compare him to me. What a horrid curse--one is doomed never to measure up.