E.L. Doctorow: “Assimilation”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). E.L. Doctorow’s “Assimilation” was originally published in the November 22, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

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I was quite surprised by this story. I didn’t particularly like Doctorow’s “Edgemont Drive” when it appeared in the magazine earlier this year, and for the first few columns “Assimilation” wasn’t doing it for me either. But, shortly, Doctorow’s skillful development had me taken.

In the beginning, Ramon is washing dishes for a restaurant when Borislav, the owner, comes to give him a promotion:

Ramon’s hands were cracked and peeling from the hot water, but he was wary of the promotion because the owner was selling it to him like there was a catch.

It doesn’t take long to prove Ramon’s intuition correct. Borislav asks to see Ramon’s birth certificate. Soon Ramon is married to Borislav’s niece in an effort to get her to the United States.

Some sort of city functionary married them. He mumbled and his eyes widened as if he were having trouble focusing. He was drunk. When the photographer’s flash went off behind him he lost his place in his book and had to start over again. He swayed, and nearly knocked over the lectern. He clearly didn’t understand the situation because when he pronounced them man and wife he urged them to kiss. The girl laughed  as she turned away and ran to the heavyset fellow and kissed him.

The girl’s name is Jelena, and, due to an affidavit that she is Ramon’s wife and he is in hardship without her presence, she is soon living with Borislav and working at the restaurant.

The story is made more interesting because Ramon is not as dumb as he might appear. First of all, he knows that legally he has certain rights with regard to Jelena. He also knows that, though he might get in trouble for what he has done, so will Borislav and his family, so they can’t hold that over him. And Ramon’s brother Leon has just been released from jail. It is apparent from Leon’s wealth and the respect others pay to him that Leon is in the upper echelons of some criminal organization. When Jelena asks Ramon to beat her, Leon won’t stand idly to the side to see his brother take the rap while Jelena becomes a legal citizen and can bring her boyfriend.

I’m hoping this is a part of a new novel because in the end I wanted to keep going.

6 thoughts on “E.L. Doctorow: “Assimilation””

  1. Aaron says:

    One of the best stories I’ve read in the New Yorker in some time. Modest, endearing, well-written, and hopeful. Surprising, especially in that last part, but then I’ve always found Doctorow to be a finely evocative stylist.

  2. Almost caught up! My thoughts posted above.

    I think Aaron and I are in agreement here; I really enjoyed this one.

  3. Ken says:

    I also thought Edgemont Drive was a weak story and very irritating in its formal “experiment.” This, though, was a real page-turner and extremely suspenseful and unpredictable. What’s interesting is Ramon’s sentimental view of an unsentimental tradition-arranged marriage. His character at first seems perhaps a bit like a dim chump but becomes increasingly complex. In fact, he may start a gang war over his love and yet he has tried to stay away from his brother’s criminal enterprises.

  4. Betsy says:

    I enjoyed the way Ramon and Jelena both are reluctantly stepping out of uniform, both shedding various assigned identities. Leon’s slightly magical and very self-assured quality – a kind of Gatsby glitter — seems to lead very plausibly to the surprising and highly pleasurable last line of the story. I didn’t catch the Jelena-Yelena-Helena-Helen link until that moment. Nevertheless, the ominous feeling of danger and threat makes the snap ending, as you point out, suggest more twists and turns to come. Doctorow’s sharply visualized people, scenes and situations contrast wonderfully with the little mysteries of intention and implication that swirl about each one. A really enjoyable read.

  5. Yikes! I didn’t even catch that Jelena-Helen link. Thanks, Betsy!

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