Sean Michaels’ novel Us Conductors the surprise winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize

November 11, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoIn the end, all the prognosticators and so-called experts were wrong.

Heading into last night’s Scotiabank Giller Prize gala, the heavy favourite to take the award was Miriam Toews for her sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows. Toews had already won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award the previous week, and the smart money had her taking the Giller for her heartfelt (and semi-autobiographical) book about a sister trying to come to terms with her sibling’s desire to end her life. Over the weekend, The Globe and Mail ran an infographic that included predictions from thirty industry insiders – editors, booksellers, former Giller jurors and nominees – predicting who would win. Of the thirty, nineteen selected Toews.

None of them – not one – picked the actual winner, Sean Michaels, who emerged victorious with his debut novel, Us Conductors.

In the experts’ defence, Michaels was a longshot going into last night’s event. He is a first-timer; only one other first-time writer has claimed the prize (Vincent Lam, in 2006, for the story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures). Johanna Skibsrud is the only other first novelist to win, in 2010. (Skibsrud had already published a volume of poetry prior to taking the Giller for  The Sentimentalists.)

David Bezmozgis, nominated for his sophomore novel, The Betrayers, had been shortlisted once before, for his first novel, The Free World. Frances Itani, nominated for her novel, Tell, is a previous winner of the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Heather O’Neill, a shortlister for her sophomore novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, won Canada Reads with her previous novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, which was also nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award. And Padma Viswanathan, nominated for her second novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, was a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and a regional Commonwealth Writers Prize for her debut, The Toss of a Lemon.

But past track record and popular opinion proved no match for a quirky debut about a Russian inventor most famous for a musical instrument that harnesses air and electricity to create its ethereal sound.

Sean_Michaels

Sean Michaels (photo by John Londono)

Us Conductors is the fictionalized biography of Lev Termen, inventor of the theremin (which the Beach Boys famously used in the intro to their song “Good Vibrations”); prior to its appearance, its author was best known as one of the creators of the music blog Said the Gramaphone.

In an essay for Quill & Quire, Michaels wrote that the inspiration for Us Conductors sprang in part from hearing Peter Pringle playing the theremin on CBC Radio. But the story of the instrument’s inventor, the inscrutable and eccentric Termen, served as the real “catalyst” for the novel: “Termen’s biography is a roller coaster of science, jazz, espionage, and heartbreak. There are secret laboratories and transatlantic crossings, Manhattan dance halls and Siberian prisons, visits to Alcatraz and the Kremlin, cameos by Charlie Chaplin and Vladimir Lenin, Rockefeller and Rachmaninoff, love and electricity.”

The Giller jury, comprised of writers Shauna Singh Baldwin, Justin Cartwright, and Francine Prose, must have agreed. In awarding Michaels the prize, which this year increased to a cool $100,000, they simultaneously defied expectations and validated the potential of emerging writers in Canada. Not bad for an award that has been criticized in the past as being hidebound and in thrall to an establishment mentality.

And not bad for an author the experts had all but written off until the moment the envelope was opened last night.

Unsurprising Giller shortlist plays it safe

October 6, 2014 by · 2 Comments 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoIt’s turning into a very good year for Miriam Toews.

Last week, the Toronto-based author was tapped as one of the five shortlisted names on the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and this morning she became one of six authors to appear on the shortlist for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Toews’s sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows, is the only book to appear on both lists, meaning that she is the only author still in contention for the CanLit award trifecta, which will be determined when the Governor General’s Literary Award shortlists are announced tomorrow.

Joining Toews on a bulked-up Giller roster are David Bezmozgis for The Betrayers; Frances Itani for Tell; Sean Michaels for Us Conductors; Heather O’Neill for The Girl Who Was Saturday Night; and Padma Viswanathan for The Ever After of Ashwin Rao.

For those keeping track of such things, that’s four women and two men. Geographically, Montreal remains strong, with two contenders (Michaels and O’Neill) residing there, and a third (Viswanathan) having once called the city home (she currently lives in the U.S.).

On the publisher front, it was a very good showing for HarperCollins Canada, which scored with three out of four longlisted books (Bezmozgis, Itani, and O’Neill; the fourth was Rivka Galchen’s story collection American Innovations). This was a sharp contrast from the publisher’s “Black Monday” of 2007, when they had five longlisted titles and nothing on the shortlist. The three other books are from imprints of Penguin Random House Canada.

By any estimation, this year’s jury – comprising writers Shauna Singh Baldwin, Justin Cartwright, and Francine Prose – has delivered a safely predictable list. Toews (whose novel A Complicated Kindness was shortlisted for the 2004 Giller) has been a critical and reader favourite since All My Puny Sorrows appeared in April, and Bezmozgis, O’Neill, and Itani are not exactly literary outsiders. Bezmozgis’s first novel, The Free World, lost the 2011 Giller to Esi Edugyan’s novel Half-Blood Blues, but went on to win the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. O’Neill’s debut, Lullabies for Little Criminals, won the 2007 edition of Canada Reads, and was nominated for both a Governor General’s Literary Award and the Orange Prize. And though this is Itani’s first Giller-nominated title, her novel Deafening won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Even Viswanathan, arguably less well-known than the others, had her previous novel, The Toss of a Lemon, shortlisted for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book (Canadian and Caribbean regions). The real outlier is Michaels, better known as a music critic, who is shortlisted for a first novel about the man who invented the Theremin and also acted as a Soviet spy.

But all of these are big books from big houses, leaving the smaller, Canadian-owned houses on the longlist – ECW Press (for the novels Waiting for the Man by Arjun Basu and Watch How We Walk by Jennifer LoveGrove) and Biblioasis (for the story collection Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page) – out in the cold. It’s a bit of a retreat for a jury that confounded expectations by choosing a longlist that ignored some of this year’s marquee names – among them David Adams Richards, Michael Crummey, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Emma Donoghue, and David Bergen – in favour of younger or lesser-known writers. By contrast, the six shortlisted titles comprise the most traditional half of the 2014 longlist.

Neither of the short-fiction collections – easily the most technically adventurous books on the longlist – made it to the final round, nor did Basu’s debut, which is part existential quest, part road trip. And though they share themes of religious fanaticism and violence, Viswanathan’s sprawling epic about the fallout from the Air India disaster is much more recondite than LoveGrove’s scabrous novel.

When the longlist was announced, the jury commented that they were “celebrating writers brave enough to change public discourse,” and that impulse certainly seems to have been borne out in the six shortlisted titles. Once again, big themes abound: terrorism (Viswanathan); assisted suicide (Toews); cultural tension (O’Neill); war (Itani); Israel and the Middle East (Bezmozgis). Only Us Conductors feels less self-consciously serious. Which is not to suggest humourlessness: both Toews and O’Neill employ humour as a narrative tactic. Nor is it meant to slight the prowess of any of these authors. (Bezmozgis, in particular, has written a strong book, one that is unafraid to deal with politics in a forthright and uncompromising manner.)

But elevating books that emphasize moral uprightness and rectitude over more ambiguous pleasures such as aesthetic innovation or linguistic flair does tend to indicate that this jury is interested in improving readers as much as entertaining them.

So who will take home the prize, which has doubled to a cool $100,000? This is a robust year for Canadian fiction, but an unfortunate one for any writer who is not Miriam Toews. Unless all indications are amiss, she’s the one to beat when the winner is announced on November 10.

Doyle, Porter, Shteyngart form 2012 Giller jury

March 6, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

Yesterday, Jack Rabinovitch announced the members of the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize jury. This year’s award, which bills itself as “Canada’s most distinguished literary prize,” will once again be adjudicated by a panel of international judges, in what has become something of a formula for the prize in recent years.

Irish author Roddy Doyle won the 1993 Booker Prize for his novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, but he is arguably best known for his comic trilogy about the lives of a group of working class Dubliners – The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van – all of which have been made into acclaimed motion pictures.

Canadian Anna Porter is a publishing icon, having worked for McClelland & Stewart during its heyday before launching her own publishing house, Key Porter Books. Her 2008 non-fiction work, Kasztner’s Train was shortlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction.

Russian-born, American-based novelist Gary Shteyngart is known for his tragicomic novels such as Absurdistan and 2010’s Super Sad True Love Story. Along with last year’s Giller nominee David Bezmozgis, Shteyngart was named one of The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40” literary fiction writers in 2010.

The three-person jury will choose a longlist of books (hopefully without help from the general public this year), which will then be culled to a shortlist, to be announced on October 1. The gala award ceremony will take place in Toronto on October 30, where one author will take home the $50,000 prize.

Some people argue that having international jurors on the panel (each jury since 2009 has featured two members from outside Canada) denigrates Canadian literature, but I would suggest that precisely the opposite is true. If we truly believe our fiction is world class, surely it should be able to withstand world-class scrutiny. Moreover, by inviting jurors from outside our borders to sit on the prize jury, the chances for parochialism, narrowness of focus, or log-rolling (a very real concern in a closed literary ecosystem such as ours) are significantly reduced.

Moreover, the last three years have seen a range of literary sensibilities among jurors, beyond the usual naturalistic, historical romantic affinities that characterize the bulk of what has traditionally been praised as canon-worthy in this country. On that score, this year’s jury appears to be one to get a bit excited about. Doyle and Shteyngart are both comic novelists, and although Porter’s recent books have been heavy works of serious non-fiction, she is also the author of a whimsical murder mystery, The Bookfair Murders, set (not incidentally) in the publishing world. This year’s jury gives me hope that the ultimate victor might evince something fabulously rare in Giller’s nineteen-year history: a sense of humour.

Esi Edugyan wins 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize

November 9, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The literary prize juries are spreading the wealth around this year. As is probably common knowledge by now, two sophomore novelists – Esi Edugyan and Patrick DeWitt – have been competing head to head for the three most important prizes for fiction in this country: the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Governor General’s Literary Award. (They were both nominated for the Man Booker Prize as well: that award went to British novelist Julian Barnes.) Last week, DeWitt took home the Rogers Writers’ Trust award for his neo-Western, The Sisters Brothers. Yesterday, it was Edugyan’s turn at the podium.

Half-Blood Blues, a novel about jazz musicians in Paris and Berlin during the early years of the Second World War, won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The jury, composed of novelists Annabel Lyon, Howard Norman, and Andrew O’Hagan, selected the book from an uncommonly strong field of six titles, the other four of which were David Bezmozgis’s debut novel, The Free World; Lynn Coady’s fourth novel, The Antagonist; Zsuzsi Gartner’s sophomore story collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives; and Michael Ondaatje’s seventh novel, The Cat’s Table.

This year’s jury read a record 143 titles to come up with its shortlist of six, which was culled from a longlist of seventeen. The longlist included one title, Myrna Dey’s Extensions, selected by popular vote on the part of the general public. The jury ended up (correctly, in my opinion) ignoring the public choice and promoting a shortlist that ranks among the finest in Giller history. There wasn’t a dud title in the bunch: not a single book of which it could be said, “Yeah, that really doesn’t deserve to be there.”

Of the winning title, the jury had this to say:

Imagine Mozart were a black German trumpet player and Salieri a bassist, and 18th century Vienna were WWII Paris; that’s Esi Edugyan’s joyful lament, Half-Blood Blues.  It’s conventional to liken the prose in novels about jazz to the music itself, as though there could be no higher praise. In this case, say rather that any jazz musician would be happy to play the way Edugyan writes.  Her style is deceptively conversational and easy, but with the simultaneous exuberance and discipline of a true prodigy. Put this  book next to Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” – these two works of art belong together.

The win marks the second time Thomas Allen Publishers was responsible for bringing out the victorious book, the first being Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe in 2002. The win for Thomas Allen, and in particular its publisher, Patrick Crean, is particularly sweet, since they were responsible for rescuing Half-Blood Blues from oblivion when its original Canadian publisher, Key Porter Books, ceased operations at the beginning of the year. This year was also remarkable for being the second year in a row in which the country’s largest multinational, Random House of Canada, was completely shut out of the shortlist (Ondaatje is published by McClelland & Stewart, which is 25% owned by Random House). DeWitt and Coady are both published by House of Anansi Press; Bezmozgis is published by HarperCollins Canada.

Edugyan takes home the $50,000 grand prize, and each of the other shortlisted authors take home $5,000. One note: this does not, as some sources would have it, make the Giller the most lucrative literary prize in Canada. The Griffin Poetry Prize awards two separate purses (one Canadian, one international) of $65,000 apiece, and the newly minted Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction is worth $60,000 to the winner, as well as $5,000 apiece to the other shortlisted authors. Not that anyone’s counting.

New names, surprise inclusions mark Giller shortlist

October 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

This year’s shortlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize – a pumped-up six books, whittled down from a pumped-up, seventeen-book longlist – is surprising both for what it includes and, arguably, for what it omits.

Two of the six finalists were, in my opinion, foregone conclusions going into yesterday morning’s announcement at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues have been receiving almost universal accolades, and have already found places on the Man Booker Prize shortlist and the Rogers Writers’ Trust shortlist. The only thing arguing against their inclusion on the Giller list would be the jury’s conscious attempt to strike out in another direction. Really, though, I don’t think anyone should have been surprised that those two made the cut.

The same certainly can’t be said for Zsuzsi Gartner’s collection of stories, Better Living through Plastic Explosives. (There were audible gasps in the room when the title was announced.) This is a second collection comprising a group of fictions that could best be described as dystopian satire: not the kind of thing that usually falls within Giller’s comfort zone. Its appearance on this year’s shortlist indicates strong support from the jury and a willingness to break out from the kind of kitchen-sink realism that tends to dominate CanLit awards lists. Love it or hate it (and readers have been divided: some adore the book, some quite definitively do not), it represents an unexpected, though not unwelcome, new direction for the Giller’s spotlight to point.

Lynn Coady was nominated for her fourth novel, The Antagonist (actually her fifth book, counting the short story collection Play the Monster Blind), which makes independent publisher House of Anansi Press the only house with multiple books on the list (they also publish DeWitt). The final two spaces were reserved for relatively better-known names – The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40” Canadian standard-bearer, David Bezmozgis, for his first novel, The Free World; and Michael Ondaatje, the only certified heavyweight on the list, for his sixth novel, The Cat’s Table.

What is notable about this list (besides the complete exclusion, for the second year running, of any titles from Random House of Canada or its imprints*) is the fact that the list is dominated by relatively reader-friendly, narrative driven books. Even the Ondaatje is by all accounts the author’s most accessible work in years. This is a trend with awards lists in 2011: from the Booker to the Writers’ Trust to the Giller, this year’s juries seem to prefer books with strong stories and an emphasis on character and setting over the kind of über-literary, stylistically challenging works that are often favourites for award consideration.

Perhaps as a corollary, a number of names that are familiar to Giller watchers failed to make the final six this year. Previous nominees Wayne Johnston, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Marina Endicott didn’t make it past the longlist, and 2007 champ Elizabeth Hay didn’t even make it that far. This year’s jury is clearly unafraid to look beyond the usual suspects, extending what can only be hoped is a trend inaugurated by last year’s jury in its shortlist selections. (It should be noted that despite the iconoclastic shortlist, last year’s jury chose the most quintessentially CanLit title – Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists – as the eventual winner: this is a trend that hopefully won’t persist.)

The presence of Annabel Lyon on this year’s jury led me to hope that more than one short-story collection might make the final cut (I’m disappointed not to see Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden, which I quite liked, on the list, and I am left wondering exactly what Clark Blaise has to do to get some recognition in this country). Lyon is joined on this year’s jury by American novelist Howard Norman, Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan, and thanks to a quirk in this year’s longlist selection process, the entire population of Canada.

The winner of the $50,000 prize will be announced at a gala ceremony in Toronto on November 8.

*We’ll allow for the moment that McClelland & Stewart, which publishes Ondaatje, is not a de facto Random House imprint.

Welcome to fall, or, Literary Awardapolooza

September 6, 2011 by · 6 Comments 

So, how was everyone’s summer?

After a refreshing (and virtually unbroken) three-month hiatus, TSR can feel the crispness returning to the air, sense the leaves beginning to turn, and smell the woodsmoke that can only mean one thing: literary awards season is upon us.

I planned to return with a carefully constructed, thoughtful post on some esoteric yet fascinating subject – the importance of shoelaces in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps. But, once again, life intrudes, this time in the form of three literary award lists dropping on the same fucking day. Haven’t these people learned anything from Hollywood? Marketing 101: you don’t open the new Transformers sequel opposite the new X-Men sequel. You stagger the openings to maximize exposure, and thus maximize box office returns, because when all is said and done, that’s what it all comes down to, right?

Right?

In any event, there are three literary awards to catch up with. Let’s start with the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which this morning unveiled a supersized longlist of seventeen books, the longest longlist in the history of Giller longlists (which, in case you’re keeping track, go back to 2006). And for the first time, the longlist contains a Readers’ Choice selection, voted on by the general public. The Readers’ Choice selection is Myrna Dey’s debut novel, Extensions. The other sixteen, jury-supported nominees are:

  • The Free World, David Bezmozgis
  • The Meagre Tarmac, Clark Blaise
  • The Antagonist, Lynn Coady
  • The Beggar’s Garden, Michael Christie
  • The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt
  • Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan
  • The Little Shadows, Marina Endicott
  • Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner
  • Solitaria, Genni Gunn
  • Into the Heart of the Country, Pauline Holdstock
  • A World Elsewhere, Wayne Johnston
  • The Return, Dany Laferrière, David Homel, trans.
  • Monoceros, Suzette Mayr
  • The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje
  • A Good Man, Guy Vanderhaeghe
  • Touch, Alexi Zentner

Now, if you read the National Post book section, you’ll know that this is the point at which I’m supposed to sprout hair, grow claws and fangs, and bark at the moon. But in all honesty, I can’t find a lot to complain about with this list. It’s a solid mix of established names and newcomers, it is geographically representative, and includes a good sampling of books from multinationals and indie presses. True, the default CanLit setting – the naturalistic, historical novel – is well represented (Endicott, Holdstock, Vanderhaeghe), but there are also examples of other styles and genres, including comic neo-Western (DeWitt), linked stories (Blaise), autobiography manqué (Laferrière, Ondaatje), and even – will wonders never cease? – satire (Gartner). I can’t even really complain about the Readers’ Choice nominee. It’s a first novel from a small press out in the prairies; sure, it tilts toward the kind of naturalism that has dominated Giller lists since their inception, but it’s not what you might call an intuitive popular choice. I still have problems with the concept of a Readers’ Choice element to selecting the Giller nominees (and no, Beverly, I am not fucking kidding), but if it has to exist, this is probably the best possible outcome.

As per usual, the Giller jury, made up this year of Canadian novelist (and erstwhile Giller nominee) Annabel Lyon, American novelist Howard Norman, and U.K. novelist Andrew O’Hagan, have rooked me by placing on the longlist only a single book I’ve already read, which means, as per usual, I have some catch-up to do. (I am pleased that the single book I’ve actually read, Michael Christie’s debut collection, is one I thoroughly enjoyed.) And I offer no guarantees that my sunny disposition will persist through the shortlist and eventual winner. But for now, I can applaud what appears to be a strong longlist of books in the running for Canada’s most lucrative and influential literary award.

As for the U.K.’s most lucrative award … It cheers me (on a flagrantly patriotic level) to announce that two of the authors longlisted for the Giller Prize – Patrick DeWitt and Esi Edugyan – have also made it onto the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. (The third Canadian to appear on the Booker longlist, Alison Pick, did not make the final cut.) The remaining nominees for the £50,000 prize are:

  • The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
  • Jamrach’s Menagerie, Carol Birch
  • Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman
  • Snowdrops, A.D. Miller

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that Alan Hollinghurst, who won the prize in 2004 for his extraordinary novel The Line of Beauty, did not progress to the next stage with his new effort, The Stranger’s Child. (Hollinghurst can commiserate with David Gilmour and Miriam Toews, two notable Canadian authors whose most recent novels, The Perfect Order of Things and Irma Voth, failed to make the Giller longlist.)

Meanwhile, on the municipal front, the finalists for the Toronto Book Awards were also announced today. They include previous award winners James FitzGerald for his memoir What Disturbs the Blood (which won the Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize and the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction) and Rabindranath Maharaj for his novel The Amazing Absorbing Boy (which won the Trillium Book Award). The other nominees are:

  • Étienne’s Alphabet, James King
  • The Parabolist, Nicholas Ruddock
  • Fauna, Alissa York

Whew. I’m spent. When do the Governor General’s and Rogers Writers’ Trust nominees get announced?

31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 28: “Natasha” by David Bezmozgis

May 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From Natasha and Other Stories

“When it comes to love,” writes Jeffrey Eugenides in the introduction to the anthology My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead, “there are a million theories to explain it.” He continues:

But when it comes to love stories, things are simpler. A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims – these are lucky eventualities but they aren’t love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, without exception, give love a bad name.

“Natasha” by David Bezmozgis (which Eugenides includes in his anthology) is a love story. And, true to Eugenides’ formula, it traffics in disappointment and features “at least one cold heart.”

The cold heart in question, however, arguably belongs to someone other than the story’s central lovers – Berman, a 16-year-old living in suburban Toronto, and Natasha, the 14-year-old daughter of Zina, the Russian mail-order bride of Berman’s uncle Fima. The story is narrated in the first person by Berman, a fairly typical suburban teenager living in his parents’ basement. “At home, separated from my parents by doors and stairs, I smoked hash, watched television, read, and masturbated. In other basements I smoked, watched television, and refined my style with girls.”

Notwithstanding Berman’s refinements of style, he is not terribly experienced in matters of the opposite sex. “At sixteen, no expert but no virgin, I lived in a permanent state of want to. But for everything I knew, I knew almost nothing.” Natasha, by contrast, is quite experienced sexually, even despite her young age. When she nonchalantly disrobes in Berman’s basement and asks if he wants to have sex, the answer is all but predetermined. During their summer together, Natasha introduces Berman to a world of sexual delights:

With the house to ourselves and no threat of being disturbed, we did everything I had ever dreamed of doing – including some things that hadn’t even occurred to me. We showered together, we slept in the same bed, I watched her walk across the room, I watched her pee. These prosaic things, being new, were as exciting as the sex. And for me the sex was as much about the variation as the pleasure. Much of the pleasure was in the variation. I kept a mental list from position to position, crossing off one accomplishment after another. Nothing was repeated until everything was attempted. That way, in the event that I was struck by a bus, I would feel as though I had lived a full life. Most of the things we did Natasha had already done, but she was perfectly happy to oblige. If she was doing it as a favor, she never expected gratitude and demanded nothing in return.

“Most of the things we did Natasha had already done.” If this seems at all odd to Berman – Natasha is, after all, only 14 years old – it goes unremarked. When Natasha tells Berman about the men back home in Russia who would pay to take naked pictures of her, she does so without emotion, and without apparent affect. Berman’s sole concern is with Natasha’s insistence that while the men took pains to position her the way they wanted her, she never cared about the way they looked. “You don’t care how I look,” Berman asks, leaping from Natasha’s description of what are very clearly exploitative, illegal acts engaged in with adult men back home to the kind of self-absorption that adolescent males are quintessentially capable of.

Natasha tells Berman that she eventually fell in with a Soviet film director who wanted to make movies of her and her friends performing sex acts at a dacha he owned. Again, she shrugs this off as unimportant:

She was never asked to do anything she didn’t want to do, and she never saw anyone else do something that she wouldn’t have done herself. Even though she and her friends knew they wouldn’t be at the dacha if it weren’t for the movies, the sex never felt as though it were the focus. The director and the other men became their friends. They treated them very well. And if they wanted to sleep with the girls, the girls could see no reason why not. At the end of the day everyone got twenty-five dollars.

Berman follows this story by recounting his disappointment that Natasha did not have any of the movies the men took of her because he would have liked to see them. Whether he is at all aware of the immoral nature of the activities the adult men had involved Natasha in is unclear; at the very least Berman is hopelessly naive about what is appropriate in sexual matters and appears to take Natasha at her word when she claims that because she and her friends were treated well and paid by the men who used them, everything is fine.

Berman’s lack of insight is perhaps due to his age and his narrow, suburban life experience, but his unwillingness to speak up on Natasha’s behalf is the thing that ultimately dooms their relationship. When Zina discovers what the two teenagers have been doing in the basement together, she banishes Natasha from Berman’s house. At the urging of Rufus, Berman’s erudite drug dealer, the young man goes to Zina’s house to get Natasha back, but is blocked from entry by the girl’s mother. “I don’t blame you for what happened,” Zina tells Berman. “It wasn’t your fault. She has turned grown men inside out and you’re just a boy. It was crazy to expect anything else. I know how weak men are.”

It is Zina who possesses the “one cold heart” Eugenides refers to. By refusing to allow Natasha to continue seeing Berman, she puts an end to what is undoubtedly the healthiest sexual relationship her daughter has ever engaged in. Zina’s admission that she knows about Natasha’s sexual past in Russia is astonishing: she blames her daughter for allowing herself to be exploited, despite the fact that Natasha was all of 12 years old when she first began disrobing for money. In Zina’s backward outlook, it is the men who are “weak” in the face of Natasha’s sexual provocations. She is unable – or unwilling – to admit that her daughter has been victimized, or to see the extent to which she is damaged.

Natasha returns once more to confront Berman and ask him why he didn’t stand up to Zina. “You listened to her lies,” Natasha says. “Why did you listen to her lies?” It transpires that Natasha has used her sexuality to get back at Zina by seducing Berman’s uncle Fima, an act that has precipitated her flight from home. She asks Berman to accompany her on the run but he refuses, out of fear, confusion, or a combination of the two. The collision of Natasha’s worldliness and Berman’s naïveté mitigates against the survival of their tenuous relationship: she has grown up too fast, he has a ways to go before he can hope to catch up to her. But at the end of the story, he realizes that his experience with Natasha has essentially changed him, and that he can never return to his “subterranean life.” When he finally parts from Natasha for the last time, after discovering that she has taken up with Rufus, Berman returns home and peers into his bedroom window from the outside. “I saw what Natasha must have seen every time she came to the house. In the full light of summer, I looked into darkness.”