Online Edition: Summer 2009

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 My Life at First Try

 Mark Budman

 Counterpoint Press ($24)

 by Bob Sommer

Mark Budman’s My Life at First Try straddles the space between the short story cycle tradition of writers like Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway, and the novel, with its essential unities of character and plot. Budman’s unique test of whether the short story can sustain a novel is to shorten it further into vignettes or flash fictions, most of which run less than a thousand words. Each vignette begins with a repetend (a refrain that varies with each repetition) that records the year and the narrator’s age: “It’s 1954. I am four”; “It’s 1976. I am twenty-six”; and so on. Budman smartly launches each story with these cues, forcing us to consider what grade we were in, who was president, what songs were on the radio.

This semi-autobiographical novel traces the life of a Siberian-born emigrant to the United States, with the story divided between his youth in Siberia and Russia during the Cold War and his adult life in America, from the Reagan years through the recession that followed 9/11 (the last one, not this one). Major events like the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Afghan War (theirs, not ours) appear as images in a background tapestry, but narrator Alex turns his vision mostly on himself—his sibling rivalries, his emerging sexuality, his confrontations with bullies. Solipsism is a theme of the book, but through Alex’s narrow worldview, Budman portrays the banal and sometimes dark life of ordinary citizens in a police state, where anti-Semitism is institutionalized and party politics an essential part of school and work.

Equally, America’s insatiable appetites and nationalized arrogance appear in marked contrast to the life Alex left behind. Alex goes to an all-you-can-eat buffet (“All you can eat—a concept unheard of back in the old country and probably anywhere else in the world.”); votes (“an ass or an elephant”?); asks his neighbor to quiet a barking dog only to find that the neighbor never speaks to him again; advances his career; discovers his ability to write (and his own incipient arrogance); and pursues his second cousin Annie, whose picture he’d seen as a child and instantly loved.

While the satire of both cultures is often sharply rendered, the comedy sometimes strains under its own weight. Alex lives in Rienville, New York (i.e., French for nothing), works for HAL Corporation (as in the infamous computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey), and rents a “U-Schlep” truck to move his daughter to Boston (brand names appear elsewhere, so why not here?). Alex is more a vehicle for reflecting the absurdities of contemporary life than a fully developed character. While he has definable traits, like his latent anger and his humor, which we hear about from other characters more than we actually see in his interaction with them, he doesn’t so much develop as a character as simply age in the environs he inhabits, and in this respect the book falls short as a novel.

Alex’s life story is contained in the vignettes of his experiences, but it’s not more than the sum of them, which may render a truth about the human condition today—and it may be much to Budman’s purpose that this is how we should see it. The affinity of flash fiction to the frenetic age of TV soundbites, Web bounce rates, bumper-sticker politics, and Twitter is obvious, but it may be just a new name for an old idea. Chekhov’s early short (very short) stories come to mind, not only for their rapid development and sudden conflicts in the briefest of encounters, but also because they rely more on caricature than character development. Budman’s comic distance from his characters prevents us from fully embracing them. Alex tells us he loves his wife, his family, his parents, but they remain distant, like the non-appearing adults in Peanuts.

Still, there is much to admire here. Budman, who also edits the flash fiction journal Vestal Review, makes good use of the form to offer many refreshing strokes of imagery, as in his description of Russian female names: “every name ends so softly, like the petal of a flower.” And he pares away at essential truths about human relations: “My friend Albert never asks me, ‘How are you?’ He answers my questions about his health, his kids, his house, his job, his finances, his girlfriend, his opinions, but he never asks about me.” The passage is rich in irony since Alex can be an annoying and self-centered companion.

Finding an answerable form for the novel in the digital age may be the next frontier in fiction. The demands of the Web-browsing/airport-terminal/Kindle/nightstand reader, the one whose attention easily jitters away, probably account for much of flash fiction’s popularity. Budman offers his own take on such readers at his Website: “Mark also writes flash fiction, so he knows how to express himself concisely, before the reader gets bored.” [http://markbudman.net/biography.html] But writing to stave off a reader’s inevitable boredom may be a little condescending to readers who turn to the novel for something more.


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