April's Other It Novel: 'The Free World' by David Bezmozgis

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Although it's easy to forget with all the fan excitement, David Foster Wallace's The Pale King isn't the only big novel that's just arrived in bookstores. While it may not be the last work of a once-in-a-generation talent, David Bezmozgis's The Free World has been making a splash in literary circles. The debut novel from one of the The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list from last summer, it tells the story of the Krasnanskys, a family of displaced Latvian Jews, waiting for Visas so that they can move to North America in the late 1970s. Although the 37-year-old Canadian has already released a book of short stories, Natasha and Other Stories, the reaction to The Free World suggests the novel is establishing Bezmozgis as a writer to pay attention to.

A survey of early reviews across the internet reveals that Bezmozgis first novel is something special, and even those that aren't as enthusiastic still label Bezmozgis a serious talent:

Adam Langer for The New York Times  Almost immediately, Langer heaps a lot of praise on Bezmozgis' plate--perhaps too much--by comparing him to Philip Roth and Leonard Michaels: 

Might it be overstating the case to include this first-time novelist in the same sentence as such fine writers as Mr. Roth and Mr. Michaels? Well, Mr. Bezmozgis’s taut 2004 debut collection “Natasha and Other Stories” suggested that he might well be of those authors’ caliber; “The Free World” goes a long way toward confirming this status.

Susan Salter Reynolds for the Los Angeles Times  Reynolds praises Bezmozgis' sense of characters and looks forward to following the young writer. She writes: "Bezmozgis is very good at channeling these characters. He lets them speak. He listens to them. He watches where their thoughts wander. Soon he will have followed these characters from his past to the end of their roads; it will be fascinating to see whom he follows next."

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Juliet Lapidos for Slate Lapidos praises Bezmozgis for being true to himself and writing a book that is not neat and tidy, but still very powerful:

Naturally The Free World doesn't have a proper happy ending, either, which isn't to say it feels unsatisfying. Bezmozgis told The New Yorker in his 20 under 40 interview that "a piece of fiction" must "have at its core some kind of irretrievable loss." That's certainly true of The Free World, and the source of its emotional resonance. Bezmozgis closes very much in the messy middle of the story, before the departure from Italy and with the knowledge that various family relationships are in flux. At the same time, with the future all hazy uncertainty, he imparts a more definitive sentiment, that what's in the past (the USSR, for one) is very much gone for good.

Jacob Silverman for ZYZZYVA  Silverman says that Bezmozgis' novel comes off as the work of someone at the top of their craft. He also praises it for not becoming too political:

"The challenge in presenting these ideas is to avoid the common pitfalls of the political novel — among them, speechifying and overwrought idealism. Bezmozgis does so marvelously, in part because his characters are often great talkers, distilling their travails down to a few pithy phrases"

Leo Robson for The Telegraph  Although not as high on the book as some of his peers, Robson still praises it as a rare and confident first novel: "David Bezmozgis projects a sense of ease that is very rare in first novels; he does everything well, though economy in characterisation is his strongest gift."

A book that's as much of a mental workout as The Pale King clearly isn't for everyone, but for those looking for something different but equally rewarding, they may have found what they're looking for in The Free World.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.