Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The New Yorker: "The Train of Their Departure" by David Bezmozgis

Begrudgingly, I have to admit that this excerpt from Bezmozgis’s novel in progress, The Free World, works pretty well as a short story. I think if he had conceived of it as a story he could have dispensed with a lot of the backstory concerning Polina and Maxim—the fact that she had an abortion and then they got married is pretty much all you need to know about that. The real story is about Polina and Alec.

That said, I like the character of Alec and the way he worms himself into Polina’s bed and the dilemma he puts himself in when her pregnancy potentially screws up his plan to emigrate. (He bets her that he can beat her in a shooting competition and the prize is that she’ll go on a date with him, although she’s still married; he barely wins.) In the end, Alec plays his cards pretty well—he’s not the fool that Polina’s coworker Marina takes him to be.

The story is about how the Soviet Union was every bit as bleak as we think it was, although it also had sparks of life to it. And, of course, it’s about taking responsibility and making choices, which both Alec and Polina are trying to do.

Not bad. Check out the Q&A with David Bezmozgis 

August 9, 2010: “The Train of Their Departure” by David Bezmozgis


Jim said...

I almost couldn't finish this story because of all the backstory. I got bored quickly, but that's in my nature. The ending almost worked as a seperate short, but it all felt like yet another excerpt.

But even as the beginning of a novel, it was pretty turgid and not engaging at all until the shooting started.

F. Escobar said...

Seeing your take on the story, Clifford, I hesitate to share my own opinion, which was not favorable at all. As Jim said, the story was slow. And, as you said, there is too much backstory, things that add close to nothing to the central storyline. I liked the scenes with Maxim, and I wish they had been the focus of the piece. They were not, though, so they should’ve been clipped.

Now, my main objection (and I’ve said this before in several comments on PF) is the language of the story. Not only is the plot slow, but the language slows it down to the point that I felt I was reading a very early draft. Showing two types of problems will do.

First, there’s clunky, overly formal language. It comes in the form of individual words and also of overwrought sentences. For instance, we are told “something had transpired” (instead of happened), he “had employed it” (instead of used it), he “inquired after her well-being” (instead of asked about it), he gave gifts “on account of the fact that he had” established a habit (instead of because he had), it “endeavored to hobble you” (instead of tried to hobble you). These aren’t cases of words chosen to avoid repetitions (word territory). These were picked so formally on purpose. I mentioned overwrought sentences. Take these two consecutive sentences: “Maxim endured the performance with the consummate face of the adult: distaste subjugated to obligation. / Reason, or its pale ambassador convention, ruled Polina and Maxim’s time together.” I think they speak for themselves.

Second, adjectives and adverbs are used loosely and indiscriminately. Some weren’t necessary, and some could easily have been replaced by a more effective word. For instance, we are told about a “silent gaze,” but can a gaze be anything other than silent? When it’s not, an adjective is called for, not the other way around. And here are two classic cases of when a weak verb and an adverb could have been melded into a single, stronger verb: “Polina’s hair […] shone brilliantly” (why not shimmered, glimmered, or glinted?); “This man, […] intently searching the room” (why not scrutinizing or scanning?).

With regard to the narrative, two brief comments. First, the voices in the dialogues weren’t distinct enough, so that dialogues often read like broken up monologues. Secondly, I didn’t go along with the narrator who didn’t make up its mind on whether it was omniscient or selectively omniscient. Near the beginning, for instance, we are told from Polina’s point of view that Maxim “appeared to do” something and that “he seemed to recognize” something else, but between those lines we are told directly that Maxim had taken certain protocols “to heart.” Does the narrative know about Maxim’s thoughts or not?

Anne said...

I agree the story was slow. I disagree that the story is about Polina and Alec and that back story is not needed. This excerpt is about Polina looking back on all the decisions she made (or were made for her) that got her to the place she is now allowing someone else - be it the State, social pressure, Maxim or Alec - to shape her future while she passively follows. She made sacrifices such as getting 2 abortions and marrying Alec just to get out of the Soviet Union. This excerpt doesn't make me want to read the book but I do think it succeeds as a short story.