Along the way, I’ve missed only one of David Bezmozgis’ books. The last novel of his I read was The Free World and, reading through the quotations I saved from that reading, I was struck by how many older passages resonate with this new collection.
Here is one which strikes me today because I’ve been thinking about how we move through patterns in the ways we relate to people and how we yearn to connect. About how many challenges to that desire exist. About the additional challenge when one must navigate that challenge while building a new home somewhere that used to be just ‘elsewhere’.
“The thrill was in saying the words and having someone say them back. The conversation was always the same anyway. You repeated at twenty-six what you’d said at sixteen. And, if you were lucky, you got to repeat it again at fifty-six and ninety-six. To see yourself through admiring eyes, to tell a woman what you wanted – what could be better? How could you tire of that? Emigration had already spoiled too many pleasures and hadn’t granted many new ones in return.”
You can spot a shift in focus between these two works immediately with the last sentence about ‘emigration’ and the title of this year’s Giller-nominated stories, Immigrant City. The former emphasizes the process of leaving one’s country to settle in a new country and the latter emphasizes the process of resettling in a new country having left another country behind. But of course these states are intertwined.
I read the first story in this collection on the subway, embarking in a Jewish neighbourhood, taking two trains and transferring to a bus, disembarking in the east end of the city, at the heart of the Indian Bazaar. The story is about a dozen pages long, and when I had finished, I went back to reread parts of it, rather than read ahead in the collection.
Partly because, coincidentally, the main character in this story, the title story, is also travelling on public transit.
He is travelling with his young daughter. In pursuit of something he hadn’t expected to find, but something he desires: a door for a damaged vehicle, to save on repair costs.
“Who knew? Didn’t every kind of flotsam wash up on the blasted shores of the Internet, including a black 2012 Toyota Highlander front passenger-side door? Indeed, there one was, offered for sale by Mohamed Abdi Mohamed of Rexdale.”
Partly because I wanted to spot the ways in which Bezmozgis pulled me into this world so authoritatively, so completely.
One aspect of storytelling that he excels at is the way he draws attention to some specific details while still allowing the stories to simmer beneath all that window-dressing. Here, for instance, we have enough information about the vehicle this man drives to source a door for it ourselves. We also know the name and location of another man who is offering to sell this kind of door.
This kind of detail establishes credibility; there is more of it, but not so much of it that it overwhelms the heart of the story. Most of the details serve a second purpose, too. For instance, in the following short passage, we learn other important details about the family through observations (some direct, some implied) about their daughter, Nora:
“Nora didn’t mind. She is very companionable. A bearded man beside us was reading a book, which she misheard as being about the five pillows of Islam.”
Their family is comfortable with books, so much so that the girl does not hesitate to ask a grown man about the book that he is reading. She has no context for the man’s response, so clearly the family isn’t reading about either pillars or pillows of Islam. And the father values companionability, and does not discourage her from this kind of interaction as they move through the city in company.
All of this matters for specific reasons, but also for more general reasons. “People, after all, are immersed in their devices and concerns,” Bezmozgis writes, later in the same story, as the father and daughter are retracing their steps via public transit. As they are moving away from Rexdale back into the heart of the city. (Are they, too, immigrating, on a smaller scale?)
Something has changed since they left their neighbourhood that morning. And now they, like their fellow travellers, are immersed in their “concerns”. Those concerns.
And what concerns? That would be spoilery. But it’s not all that different from the subjects about which that earlier passage circles. (The one from the other book.) The ways we connect, the ways we don’t. The challenges to that, the ways we overcome them (and don’t). And how we leave and how we stay.
These stories cover so much ground (literally, figuratively) and some (like “A New Gravestone for an Old Grave”) are edging into novella territory, but they circle most tightly around human hearts.
Contents: Immigrant City, How It Used to Be, Little Rooster, Childhood, Roman’s Song, A New Gravestone for an Old Grave, The Russian Riviera
SHADOW GILLER 2019: You can also follow the Shadow Giller Jury’s progress at Kevin from Canada’s site and read Naomi’s reviews at Consumed by Ink. Our reading schedule for this year’s shortlist is here, if you’d like to mark a particular title on your own calendar.