Monday, May 9, 2011

Oh God, Not the Dog - #28

STORY: "Tapka" by David Bezmozgis

FROM: NATASHA AND OTHER STORIES (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004)

BASICALLY: The sins of childhood are mined in this account of what goes awry one day for two young children entrusted with a neighbor's beloved Lhasa-apso. More broadly, though, a story about the immigrant experience.

You may have noticed that I've written about a lot of stories with quirky or fantastical elements—devils and cheerleaders, robots, ghostly apparitions, and fairy tales of the afterlife. My tastes, I admit, do favor of the weird. Realism, on the other hand—well, it can leave me cold. It's not you, Realism, it's me! I get why people want to be smacked in the face with the relentless suffering of humanity, sure I do, but sometimes it just feels like a chore to read—like I'm enduring something just to get my character built.

"Tapka" is a good story. I'm probably not its audience. I found myself just wanting to get through it, but it's not the story's fault. It's just…these little kids, and they're Russian immigrants who're trying so hard, and this precious little dog, and he's the only thing this older immigrant couple has, and you just know the whole time that something awful's in store for him and you kind of want it to be over with already.

And it doesn't even turn out that bad, but we end on a note of sadness wrapped around a painful life lesson and while I admire how we got there, I didn't enjoy myself much.

But if you like this sort of thing—the people that may very well be real, the personal tragedies that could be happening next door—then Bezmozgis is right up your alley. He tackles the perspective of childhood with elegance and compassion, but the really interesting thing he does in "Tapka" is unite the state of childhood with the experience of being an immigrant. One context informs the other—they run so easily and obviously parallel, in fact, that I know Bezmozgis has to be making the connection look easier than it is.

In the crucial scene, we see six-year-old Mark with his seven-year-old cousin Jana, playing with the dog in the ravine where they take him for walks. They throw his toy again and again, each time having only to say "Tapka, get Clonchik," and the dog will fetch. But on this particular day, the children are also playing with their newfound tongue. Jana discovers that you can say "Shithead, get Clonchik" and the dog doesn't know the difference and keeps playing the game in happy obliviousness. But Mark is bothered and doesn't want to call the dog he loves "Shithead." 

I couldn't help thinking, "Poor Tapka," and looked around for some sign of recrimination. The day, however, persisted in unimpeachable brilliance…I was amazed at the absence of consequences.
Bezmozgis uses this conflict over a word in such an interesting way. He paints a convincing picture of a quarrel between two children, those little power plays and acts of one-upmanship they engage in. At the same time, he's keeping their strangeness in their surroundings front and center, as they struggle to express themselves rightly in English. And then he's marrying the bewildered state of an uncertain child with the equally bewildering experience of being in an unfamiliar country. When disaster strikes, the stakes feel extremely high because they are flailing, both as immigrants who can't speak the language and children who can't articulate what terrifies them.

And if it turns out to be a little bit (though not too) depressing, then Bezmozgis has most likely accomplished what he was aiming for: a story that feels true, an empathy that becomes real.