Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

In reading Anthony Marra’s book, I soon realized I was carrying a lot of baggage in my thinking. I should get some of that baggage out of the way, so that any reader of this review understands some of the bias.

A minor piece of baggage is that the back cover of this is plastered with short blurbs of overwhelming praise. Too much! This ends up being a metaphor for one of my criticisms later, but I am sure that this ruffled me the wrong way to start with. Tone it down Random House.

The main baggage is that my mother lived through Czechoslovakia in WWII and then the early Soviets. Her family escaped in 1948 when the first coup d’etat occurred and they were slated for defenestration.

This meant I grew up hearing about both the horrors of war and occupation and the vagaries of smuggling, black market, and Soviet ineptitude. The question that springs to mind in reading this is “what is really different here for a reader that understands this sort of thing?” My short answer is less than most of the overly enthusiastic blurbs on the back might think.

The next piece of baggage is that I am a writer also. I have been tainted by an MFA and struggle with my own writing on a daily basis. I certainly wish I could write sentences as well-crafted as Marra’s all the time, but at the same time I have some biases on writing style that made me roll my eyes with this book.

The writing style utilizes some techniques that often work, but at times are tedious. One is the use of a quite distant omniscient voice/narrator. It does give us insights into the characters, but we move from (for example) Natasha, to knowledge that some person she is meeting will eventually get Parkinson’s but that his hand doesn’t shake yet.

This is a bit of post-modernism that is sometimes brilliant, sometimes cute, sometimes gets in the way.

On the subject of post-modernism and still in the omniscient, the non-linear narrative often does not work for me. Marra is trying to cover a ten year period and jumps back and forth. Fine. But, some of this is back story that really should have been left as backstory. The omniscient narration used for this feels very distant and often entire chapters were expository writing with no dialog. I don’t want to get trite and say that he just tells versus shows, but he comes close to this. Much of this feels like information dumps of backstory.

Yet, the book is good one. Not great in the sense of “A 21st-century War and Peace” as the blurb from New York Times book review indicates, but a very good perspective on Chechnya and very distinct, three dimensional characters.

Marra loves his similes and to a lesser extent his metaphors. In the first twenty-five pages, or so, I felt that while each sentence was a gem, it was a bit like seeing Liberace in print. It became really hard to focus on the story with so many “gems” on the page. This may sound silly, as I love a great sentence, but I actually found it distracting for the first 25 or so pages.

He does a great job of having details that are both symbols and that are threads connecting the characters, such as a history of Chechnya that was originally 3,000 pages long, then made into a 150 page slice that was published which the author then burns the remaining pages. The small slice is then read by other characters that don’t know each other and there is symbolism layered all over this. Marra does a great job with this sort of literary technique.

I loved the small discussion at the end with Marra. The technique of writing a full novel, printing it, then starting over again, is interesting. Other authors do similar things, but I think he is the first to do it four times in a row.

Bottom line, this is a great first book and I expect Marra to produce more. He deserves praise. I simply think there is room for improvement and that the subject matter at a high level (vagaries of war, occupation, disrupted lives, etc.) has been done before and that the approach here is not novel. If you have not been exposed to this type of book, or don’t have a perspective on Chechnya, this is well worth a read. If you have been exposed to this, but enjoy it, it is also worth a read. If you want to really be swallowed up by the characters and feel close to them, this is probably not your book.

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