Friday, December 11, 2015

The Tsar of Love and Techno: On Art, Life, War, and Peace (Phenomenal!)

If you read Anthony Marra's much-acclaimed 2013 novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena — a harrowing, beautiful, brilliant novel about the wars in Chechnya — then, like me, you've been waiting patiently for his next thing. Thankfully, the wait wasn't long. Here it is — a collection of interconnected stories (truthfully, this reads more like a novel than a short story collection) titled The Tsar of Love and Techno that is, in a word, phenomenal.

There are nine distinct stories, but characters recur, constantly building the overall story — similar to, say, Jennifer Egan's, A Visit From the Goon Squad. At the center is a minor work by a Russian painter — a landscape scene of a meadow outside of Grozny that carries significance in many different ways to many different characters over the course of the book. The stories range from the Siberian nickel-mining and former Gulag town of Kirovsk in both pre-WWII and present day, to the streets of St. Petersburg, and to Grozny, Chechnya at various times.

What's wonderful about this book is how tightly knit and neatly nested these stories are. A brief anecdote about one character in one story becomes the basis for another story later. This is a character-driven book, and these are wonderful people — a Russian movie star/beauty queen, a Russian oligarch billionaire, an "art-restorer" in the time of Stalin whose job is to touch up art to remove dissidents...and also to make Stalin look better, a Grozny bureaucrat and art lover, a Russian gangster and soldier-for-hire named Kolya (if there's a "main character," its him), a St. Petersburg scam-artist named Sergei, who gets a list of Americans to scam from Tom Hanks' Facebook fan page (because those people MUST be naïve...hilarious.) These wonderful characters flit in and out of each others' lives, constructing a cornerstone theme about how life imitates art imitates life until the two are nearly indistinguishable. Also, war is horrific.

If you've read Vital Phenomena, you know this: Marra is a supremely talented writer. Perhaps the one thing I loved most about this book is his ability to evoke such a range of emotions throughout this collection as a whole, but often on the same page. One of the stories — perhaps my favorite, titled "The Grozny Tourist Bureau," — is about a fellow who is put in charge of revamping Grozny's lagging tourism industry after the wars are over and Grozny is basically a pile of rubble. It's by turns hilarious and heart-breaking, and I loved it.

I'm always a little skeptical when a writer publishes a collection of stories immediately after a hugely successful novel. But this isn't just a collection of previously published pieces. It's possible some of these were published elsewhere first (I don't want to find out, to be honest), but this book has such a deliberate, purposeful feel. It is easily one of my favorites of the year — extremely highly recommended. (By the way, its current Goodreads rating is 4.42, and it made it on NY Times list of 100 Notable Books, so it's not just me who thinks this books is terrific.)

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