David Bezmozgis “The Train of Their Departure”
The New Yorker Fiction: 20 Under 40
August 9, 2010 issue

It was the inclusion of names like David Bezmosgis’ in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list that got me keen on reading the series as a whole.

I absolutely loved his first collection, Natasha and Other Stories.

Here’s the snippet I wrote about it in including it on my list of favourite reads that year: “This debut collection broke the seemingly-unbreakable overly-humid summer reading malaise, forcing me to read whilst walking before demanding I sit until I had finished.”

That might have you thinking that his stories are the stuff of thrillers (like Daphne duMaurier’s Flight of the Falcon, which I’ll be chatting about tomorrow) but, no: these are ordinary stories about ordinary people. And, yet, there’s something riveting about them all the same.

Here is how “The Train of Their Departure” opens:

“In the spring of 1976, before the start of their affair, before he became her husband, before she knew anything about him, Polina had noticed Alec in one or another of the V.E.F. buildings, always looking vaguely, childishly amused.”

It’s a complex sentence, isn’t it.

But not as half as complex as the life (indeed, lives) behind it.

Bezmozgis takes Polina’s story from before and before and before, through after and after and after, and the tension comes in connection with a mistake that she acknowledges early on. At the end of these few pages, I felt that I knew her as well as I knew some characters with whom I’d spent a couple of hundred pages.

But that’s not to say there is an intimacy to the story, to its telling, or that we come to know every detail of Polina’s life.

Readers are introduced to Polina in her workplace, the radio factory, but although we are introduced to her co-worker, Marina Kirilovna, by her first and last name (she sits at the desk next to Polina’s), we aren’t even told Polina’s last name.

In fact, to start with, we are told more about Marina Kirilovna (who is always identified by both of her names), particularly about her frustration with men.

When it comes to her “departed husbands”, Marina Kirilovna says that “the only joy she’d got out of living with them…had been outliving them”.

Notice, that’s “departed husbands”, not the familiar “dearly departed”. What’s left out of David Bezmozgis’ stories can be as vitally important as what is included. Like Polina’s last name. She is just Polina. She is married, yes, and she is having an affair, yes: she is not identified with a particular man, by his name or otherwise, at this time.

But it is as much what is not said about Polina that pulls me into her narrative as what Bezmozgis says: it’s a fine line. A fine line indeed.

Have you noticed a writer not-telling as much as they’re telling in your reading of late?
Have you read David Bezmozgis’ work before?

PS Here’s his Q&A.