The big questions
by Keith Taylor
From the March, 2019 issue
It has been six years since Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena startled readers across the country. It was a fundamentally different first novel: He recreated the war in Chechnya and seemed to enter the characters he had invented there.
Like many readers, I was skeptical. What could a young American just out of his MFA program know about the life of a doctor in a small country torn apart by war? Sure, he had his college year abroad in the former Soviet Union, but is that really the kind of experience that genuinely opens up a new country for a young writer? Yet the novel felt absolutely true and wise. Once you had entered Marra's world, whatever its relationship to the "real" world, you couldn't leave. He reached way outside his personal concerns and staked a claim on his humanity.
A few years later, Marra did it again, publishing The Tsar of Love and Techno, a collection of lengthy short stories. The book is structured like a mixtape-four songs on one side, an intermission, then four more on the B side. The times and settings jump from the Stalinist purges in the 1930s, to the war in Chechnya, then back to the corrupt world of Russian oligarchs in the 1990s, then to an environmentally destroyed city above the Arctic Circle in Siberia just before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
There is a host of characters: miners in the Arctic, conscripted soldiers, a Russian B-movie actress, the curator of an abandoned regional art museum, and on and on. At first it seems as if these characters have nothing in common, but connections, however tentative, slowly emerge. For instance, a nineteenth-century landscape painting done by a minor Chechen painter keeps coming back to define a location and history central to several of the stories. The painting and the structure of the book create a mosaic that breaks time and twists it in mysterious ways, but the
collection leaves you with an impression of unity.
This sense of the simultaneity of time recalls some of the later novels of Nabokov, and I'm willing to wager that is intentional. But there are other things that call up memories of the great nineteenth-century Russian novelists, not least of which is the setting on the edge of the Caucasus. Then there is the willingness to broach the big questions in a way that just doesn't seem to be very popular in contemporary American fiction. One character returns to a place where his parents had lived out difficult lives. "To say he felt guilty would ascribe to him ethical borders that were lines on a map of a country that no longer existed." That almost sounds like Tolstoy to me!
Marra reads from his work at UMMA as part of the U-M Zell Visiting Writers Series on Thursday, March 21.
[Originally published in March, 2019.]
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