[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]
Originally published in The New Yorker, August 9, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 98.
Bezmozgis has great pacing, from the mysteries of the opening ("Before the start of their affair, before he became her husband, before she knew anything about him") to a long flashback that explains not only the mechanics of her courtship ("He courted her with the measured discipline of a person climbing a long flight of stairs") but also her own complicity in them ("At the time, she had been incapable of acting differently"; "Because she didn't want to say no, she said yes"). He also manages a neat flip when he mirrors the first courtship with the second, this time from the dashing but similarly logical Alec's perspective. Though he gets a bit plot heavy toward the end, he remains romantic not just about these Chekhovian characters, but about his homeland, too. That's magical, and highly quotable, writing.
Apparently this is an excerpt from Bezmozgis's upcoming The Free World, which is surprising since it works perfectly on its own. Still, even here, he shows an ability to switch narratives (while remaining in the third-person) and executes mood with a deadly precision. For instance, though there's no italicized inner thoughts, we understand exactly why Polina acts as she does:
[Men] were sluggards, buffoons, dimwits, liars, brutes, and--without exception--drunks. The tragedy was that women were saddled with them and, for the most part, accepted this state of affairs.... Marina Kirilovna liked to say that the only joy she'd got out of living with them had been outliving them.Her worldview is extremely narrow, and the joy of good writing is watching it expand. So when we hew closely to Polina, watching her make mistakes, like forcing meek Maxim to have unprotected sex with her simply because that's what she's overheard the other girls doing (and because it's not routine), we really do feel for her. (Even her provincial attempt to use urine as a birth-control method is appealing.) Her abortion is as matter-of-fact as anything else: "The doctor and nurse pretended that her top half didn't exist and dealt only with her bottom half. Polina relinquished it to them." And how could it not be? "Almost everyone she knew had had at least one abortion.... Compared with these, her ordeal hardly ranked."
The full-circle of this story is, of course, Polina finding herself pregnant again, this time by Alec, again being asked to get an abortion ("It's better for our future," is a line both men say, in one way or another). She offers resistance, comes up with her own plans, but she's doomed from the start, giving the constructs of the world around her. So yes, she winds up married to Alec, but is he actually a better man, or just a less foolish one? Bezmozgis ends his story with Polina considering her choice, though we already know the answer, given that lingering tease of an opening. But instead of spelling it out, he hints at it--"All this time, unbeknownst to them, the train of their departure was approaching"--and leaves with a bracketed warning, a "great length of silence, long enough to accommodate everything that had happened or would happen...." Powerful stuff.