Now, nearly a decade later, Marra has released her second novel, a story set before and during World War II called “Mercury Pictures Presents.” Fans of the author, including former President Barack Obama, will recognize his elegant resolution of tangled catastrophes, his heartbreaking emotion, his eye for historical curiosities that exceed the parameters of fiction. But the emotional range here is narrower, the toll of human cruelty more subtle. And if “Mercury Pictures Presents” doesn’t generate the impact of “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” well, that’s an incredibly high standard.
Review: “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra
The novel opens in Hollywood in 1941. There’s a goofy comedy playing, but it’s not on screen; it’s in the headquarters of Mercury Pictures. Studio founder Artie Feldman can’t believe his baldness has finally gotten too big to hide. Older readers will remember Carl Reiner on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” when Artie suggests, “Maybe the forelock shrunk.” Six other cheekbones – all adorned with animal names – sit behind his desk on wooden heads like furry Oscars. “Artie had become convinced that each was crackling with the karmic energy of the original head of hair, unrealized and awaiting release.”
But Mercury Pictures faces even bigger problems than male pattern baldness. The Senate’s inquiry into movie war propaganda “invited” Artie and other studio chiefs to Washington for a show trial to defend their movies and their patriotism. Worse, the puritan who controls the Production Code Administration is redoubling his efforts to make “gratuitously harmless” pictures, lest the snow-white innocence of American viewers be sullied.
Artie’s main defender and fiery central character in this complicated novel is his assistant producer, Maria Lagana. She is a 28-year-old Italian-American with “the skills of a general, a diplomat, a hostage negotiator and a hairdresser”. She has a special talent, Marra explains, “for smuggling subtext past the production code administration’s decorum border guards.” When Artie tells Maria she can get a producer’s credit if she gets their latest film past censorship, she takes up the challenge.
Marra rolls out this period comedy with so much old-world spirit that “Mercury Pictures Presents” should come with popcorn and a 78-ounce Coke. But then, suddenly, the scene shifts to a much darker time – the first in a series of maneuvers pointing to the thin membrane separating humor and horror in this novel.
What at first looks like a charming flashback to Maria’s youth in Rome is, in fact, an explanation for her lingering sense of guilt. As a strident teenager, she acted recklessly to protect her father in a way that accidentally led to his arrest during fascist rule. As Maria escapes to the United States, her father remains behind and becomes embroiled in a convoluted murder plot that spans multiple lives.
With these intertwined events, Marra demonstrates her remarkable ability to grasp the complex cruelties of political and social collapse. Borrowing tropes from spy thrillers and police procedurals, it transcribes a web of chaos and kindness that carries a few lucky souls through the fires of Italy’s collapse. Along the way, he traces the lines of future coincidences so far-fetched only history could validate them.
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When Marra returns to the United States, this chilling vision of Italian fascism serves as both contrast and caution. As the country enters the war, Mercury Pictures joins the effort to convince Americans of the purity of their cause and the wickedness of their enemies. But, of course, many of these propaganda films are written, directed, produced, and even performed by the same types of people the US government is demonizing. These “resident aliens” working for the studio cannot legally travel more than a few miles from home, and they are constantly at risk of harassment and even assault, but here they glorify the values of equality and freedom that the country holds dear. . (In one of many brilliant and bitterly funny sets, a talented Asian-American actor spends the day with Bela Lugosi considering the psychic costs of portraying “outsiders” to white audiences.)
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The novel’s most fascinating move is the way it unravels the complications of realism — particularly in the service of propaganda. Marra describes studio filmmakers struggling to shoot sequences of actual battle scenes that look convincing. Despite their best efforts, the technological limitations of the cameras make the documentary reels seem tiny and confusing. The only solution, ultimately, is to simulate the carnage with re-enactments. “Everywhere,” Marra says deadpan, “there was a pent-up hunger for what felt like reality.”
And in one of the novel’s many bizarre but true episodes, that idea is turned upside down: deep in the Utah desert, the military builds an accurate mock-up of a Berlin neighborhood to practice making rain real carnage in the German capital.
What is real is made false; what is false passes for real. Who can maintain a sense of moral clarity in such a national house of mirrors?
But this novel does not only feed on its surreal images, its archival discoveries or even its acerbic criticism of American hypocrisy. What matters, in the end, is Marra’s ear for capturing the subtle notes of grace in the lives of ordinary people. If reading “Mercury Pictures Presents” sometimes feels like watching multiple movies simultaneously, you can be sure the novel will end up focusing on a moment of sweeping compassion that doesn’t sound louder than a sigh.
Ron Charles book reviews and writing Book club newsletter for the Washington Post.
On August 3 at 7 p.m., Anthony Marra will be in conversation with Angie Kim at the political and prose bookshop5015 Conn. Ave. NW, Washington.
Mercury Pictures Presents
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