“Life”: Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena


Only one entry supplied an adequate definition, and she circled it with red ink, and referred to it nightly. Life: a constellation of vital phenomena–organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.

Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is such a good book — it is so beautiful, so terrible, so moving, so well-designed — that it feels ungenerous to add that it also seems a bit generic, a bit familiar.

I don’t mean that its particular story, with its meticulously imagined people and their intensely specific, believably personal lives, are themselves unoriginal. We haven’t met these people struggling through a war-torn world before, and the account Marra gives of their lives–of their suffering, of their clutching attempts to preserve some faint radiance of humanity in spite of everything that is terrible and heartbreaking and violent around them–is both gripping and immensely touching.

The context of their lives is also, at least to me, unfamiliar fictional territory. I knew little about the Chechen wars before reading Marra’s novel; I know more about them now, and bringing that historical and political story to readers is (surely) part of what motivated Marra to write this novel. There are so many pockets of tragedy in the world; it is easy, from far away, to miss or disregard far too many of them. Even if it is true that our attention is finite, our capacity for sympathy isn’t, and one thing (not, of course, the only thing) an artist can do is help us reach out, if only imaginatively and vicariously, where our hearts hadn’t gone before. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes what might be, for many readers, a tragic but distant muddle, and makes it real, in that paradoxical way that only fiction can.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena does not feel pedantic or didactic, though, informative as it is. It is a story of intersecting lives: the historian whose work and life both, in their own ways, go up in ashes; the inept local doctor who finds new purpose in a catastrophe; the hardened surgeon who amputates limbs more easily than she loves or trusts; the tortured informer whose capitulation is, sadly, as comprehensible, maybe more so, than others’ resistance; the little girl, whose survival is first a practical challenge then a symbolic victory against war–perhaps even against death itself. I make them sound like types, but Marra is too smart and too gifted for that: they feel individual, and the way the complicated intersections of their lives are gradually revealed to us is engrossing and artful.

constellation2But to me that same art sometimes felt just a bit too conspicuous: I often thought about how well-crafted the novel was, structurally as well as at the sentence level. Is that even a fair thing to say, I wonder? That a a book is too clearly well-written, that a writer’s sentences are a little too good? Here’s the novel’s opening line, for example: “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” I bet you didn’t see those sea anemones coming! That surprise is excellent: right away, I’m intrigued, and it turns out, too, that sea anemones aren’t an incidental choice. Here’s another sentence from quite a bit further along, though: “The silver Makarov pistol was all Ramzan thought about for the two weeks preceding Dokka’s disappearance, in which he failed to produce a single bowel movement.” Surprise again! And maybe now you see what I mean. This is an effect Marra likes. He is good at producing it, but it risks being gimmicky, and these lines, to me, smack of the journalistic imperative to have a good “lede.” There’s something a bit self-conscious about it: there’s a bit of self-display.

Another trick Marra likes, and uses effectively, is prolepsis: he’s always tossing in tidbits about where his characters will be a few days, or a week, or many years from the novel’s present. That too was artful, and thematically effective: it sustained Marra’s emphasis on the novel as about a moment in a long and moving history, and it kept us glancing forward from the often unbearably grim details, towards a future in which things get better, at least for some. I liked these life rafts of hope, but they too sometimes drew my attention out of the world of the novel and into Marra’s own world-making. Again, I’m not sure that’s even a fair complaint–these are not the sorts of things that necessarily bother me in other novels, and they didn’t much impair my involvement in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena either, but they did a bit.

The larger distraction for me, though, was the sense that for all the excellence of this novel, it wasn’t altogether new. Its main theme (let’s sum it up as “the persistence of humanity in the face of inhumanity”) is itself, sadly, familiar: plenty of other novels show us glimmers of goodness among the shadows of unspeakable evil–Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See or Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigilto give just a couple of examples. The novel’s episodic structure, with its interwoven narratives, is also a familiar approach–I was reminded of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, for instance. These are all books I both liked and admired (not always the same thing, of course), and I liked and admired A Constellation of Vital Phenomena too, but I was struck by how predictable it seemed, not, again, at the level of the specific stories, but as a type. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am hardly a fan of experimental fiction. My tastes are quite traditional, really: I do much better with books like Hild than Dept. of Speculation; I’m more Anita Brookner or J. G. Farrell than Jennifer Egan. (And Offill and Egan aren’t even really very “experimental.”) So it was interesting to find myself chafing at what seemed like the relative safety of this novel compared to, say, The Orphan Master’s Son. Johnson’s novel doesn’t do anything radical with form, and in some ways it has a similar interwoven structure, but it felt more daring, more exciting than  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Many individual moments in Marra’s novel startled and touched me, but Johnson’s novel as a whole overpowered me.

I’m trying to figure out my own slight reservations, really, more than I am registering any serious criticisms of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. It’s certainly one of the best novels I’ve read this summer, maybe this year. It’s a bit startling to consider that it was Marra’s first novel, and that he was under thirty when it was published in 2013. I missed out on it then; I picked it up after hearing the inimitable Steve Donoghue discuss it with admiration in one of his book haul videos. I’m really glad I did. I’m going to be thinking about it for a while, and probably recommending it to quite a few people in my turn.

15 thoughts on ““Life”: Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

  1. Dorian August 28, 2016 / 12:54 am

    Interesting! I’ve picked this book up in one store or another several times. But that first line. I cannot get past it. It has MFA program written all over it. Maybe Marra never went to an MFA program, I don’t know. It’s that carefully studied sense of surprise, maybe even something a bit outrageous. Seems so fake and predictable. (Elif Batuman has a great riff on this kind of prose in her wonderful book on Russian lit, I’m forgetting the name of it just now.) Another much-feted recent US novel that I couldn’t read past the opening line is Gold Fame Citrus: “Putting the prairie dog into the library was a mistake.” Ugh.

    Anyway, as always you are much more judicious and temperate than I am. I appreciate the way you can give the book its due even if also doesn’t quite work for you.


    • Rohan Maitzen August 28, 2016 / 10:04 am

      Well, I can certainly be intemperate (see Eligible or Gwendolen for examples!). But in this case really I do think the self-consciousness of that first line (which I also do quite like, despite not liking how self-consciously clever it is) is outweighed overall by the rest of the book, which is often quite powerful and very sincere (a quality I value). Maybe you are right that MFA teachings are to blame for what John Wilson on Twitter aptly called the “twee” qualities. (Marra is definitely a “program” writer.)


  2. Teresa August 28, 2016 / 9:26 am

    I liked and admired Marra’s second book (Tsar of Love and Techno) in much the same way you liked and admired this. He’s a good writer. But I know what you mean about the style. I enjoyed Tsar while I was reading it, but months later, it’s just one of many examples of well-crafted lit fic.

    Lately I’m finding that there’s a certain kind of experimentation in literary fiction today that’s so ordinary that it doesn’t seem experimental and daring at all. I’ve been thinking about that a lot of terms of my Booker reading. So far, my favorite book on the list (The North Water) is the one with the most straightforward narrative style. It doesn’t seem to be trying to do anything stylistically daring (other than being explicit), and it ends up feeling the most daring because its main interest is in telling an exciting story from beginning to end.


    • Rohan Maitzen August 28, 2016 / 10:08 am

      I think you’ve got at something that I was trying to figure out. Where is the trust in story, in narrative? All this artfulness seems a bit tacitly apologetic, as if years of “show, don’t tell” have made ambitious writers suspicious of storytelling (that and the prejudice against genre fiction with its purported overvaluation of plot). Johnson’s novel seemed much committed to the sheer power of story, and it also wasn’t timid about emotional highs and lows, which stood out for me nowadays when so much value is placed on understated, reticent prose. Obviously my preferences here aren’t universal standards, but I liked the sense that Johnson was rushing out of the gate and just going for it. More than once recently I’ve read a novel that I just wished had started at the beginning and powered through to the end instead of being so darned clever about everything.


  3. Robert Minto August 28, 2016 / 12:42 pm

    Regarding this idea of a novel that’s *too* well-crafted: I have this exact thought all the time. The two factors you cite—prolepsis and the self-consciously surprising juxtaposition—as well as a kind of forced and pervading symbolism, really bother me. I find myself thinking about it as an application of the lyrical intensity of a short story to the epic messiness of a novel. (I know: not all novels; not all short stories. Pleases look past the unjustifiable generalizations!) It’s almost exhausting to feel that you have to read a novel with the same quality or intensity that you read a short story. I almost *want* a certain roughness or messiness in a novel. And it’s precisely, as you say here in the comments, because I feel as if an over-fine or over-crafted novel betrays a lack of confidence in the significance of the story that’s being told… Though maybe my short story v. novel distinction here is spurious, because I just remembered how I had something along the lines of this same reaction to Lethem’s LUCKY ALAN short story collection. (I actually wrote about it for OL.) So I guess I have no theory about the experience of disliking a too-good novel after all! But I definitely share the feeling. (I had it about Rushdie’s MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN recently, though I also enjoyed the book.)


    • Rohan Maitzen August 28, 2016 / 6:47 pm

      My problem with my own complaint is that I don’t think I’m very consistent. There are very finely written books I just love, after all, and messy ones that I rail against. Your point about reading novels with the same intensity as short stories is interesting. I agree about how exhausting it is, but neither of us would want to be lazy readers. I also just read David constantine’s ‘The Life-Writer,’ which is very short-story like in its intensity and I loved it. There must be some other quality that makes a fine or messy novel really work for us — when another novel we’d label the same way doesn’t. We will both just have to keep puzzling!


  4. Sam August 28, 2016 / 8:22 pm

    Fascinating discussion. This was almost exactly my problem with one you mention here, ‘All the Light We Cannot See,’ which was nearly mathematically perfect in its plot arcs and use of symbols, as though crafted by a machine. I think I liked Marra’s more because of sheer ingenue enthusiasm, although I could definitely feel the luster wearing off by his second book.


    • Rohan Maitzen August 28, 2016 / 8:57 pm

      I wonder if I’d read them in reverse order – in the order they were published – if I would have raved about Marra’s novel and complained about Doerr’s, instead of the other way around.


  5. Dorian August 28, 2016 / 11:38 pm

    Agree with Sam–this is an interesting conversation!

    As a great lover of D. H. Lawrence, I’m really taken with this idea of shagginess or, more accurately maybe, lack of perfection, something a bit rough-hewn and above all *strange* as central to what makes good fiction.

    I hear what Rohan is saying about inconsistency in our responses. Maybe we’re just covering up personal preferences when we turn to terms like these.

    But not too long ago I read an interview with Edwin Frank, the editor of the NYRB classics series (so basically the person I want to be) that left a big impression on me. Among other things, he talks about how he used to read the last lines of a novel first to decided if it was of any interest. (To me this was faintly thrilling, daring.) He adds: “a good book revises your sense of what a good book can be.” Maybe this is too simple, but I think it really gets at something. Perhaps what we’re dismayed at in these books is their sheer competency. They don’t revise our sense of anything. (I don’t think this is an exhortation for “experimentalism,” incidentally.) Lawrence isn’t always totally competent, in fact often on the verge of incompetence. And I really respond to that.

    The interview is here if anyone is interested: http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/04/07/what-a-good-book-can-be-an-interview-with-edwin-frank/


    • Rohan Maitzen August 29, 2016 / 9:25 am

      I wonder if replacing the certainty of “shagginess” with the possibility of risk or reach is better: I’m not sure I routinely prefer novels that aren’t very well crafted or structured or whatever to novels that are (in fact, I’m pretty sure that “well done” is among my usual standards for excellence), but I appreciate a novel that, as your quotation says, “revises” my ideas. I admire competency (keeping in mind I really liked Marra’s novel, in spite of my quibbles) — but competency without soul, mechanical competency (to borrow Sam’s point) — that’s maybe where the lack lies? (Is it safe to say that MFA programs probably discourage risk? That they might define “success” in too narrow a way?)

      I was thinking about the essay I wrote for OLM on Romola for instance: I don’t admire Romola because it is imperfect, but its imperfections are part of something important — and risking them (I think) enabled George Eliot eventually to reach the heights of Middlemarch.


      • Sam August 30, 2016 / 2:34 pm

        I agree. The key words that usually come to mind for me are love and passion. Not very analytic criteria, but what great book isn’t born of them?


  6. Claire August 30, 2016 / 11:55 am

    Long time lurker, first time commentator.
    Thank you for your review and to everybody who chimed in for articulating some of my reservations about this novel. My main concern with this novel (and Anthony Doerr’s All the light you cannot see and similar novels) is that the writing skill and the way it is employed (story lines, internal monologue, jumps in the time lines) adds a level of artificiality that ultimately does the subject matter and the author a disservice.
    Looking back I felt manipulated (not that I disagree with the point of the view of the writer at all) but I did not appreciate the attempt and felt that the book and its subject matter did not require it, they were powerful enough as they were.
    I’m also unsure about the right and wrong of turning horrific recent or even worse contemporary events into a novel by people who are lucky enough not to have experienced them. Research, imagination and skill can take you a long way, but in these novels it still feels as if they were using the strong emotions evoked by these events to provide extra ballast to their stories, rather than trusting in their stories.


    • Rohan Maitzen August 30, 2016 / 2:58 pm

      Thank you for de-lurking! You raise such an interesting question about how to turn horrific events into art. This is a question with robust debate going back at least to the Holocaust, of course, but it is definitely relevant here, and that problem of how right it is to make something aesthetically pleasing out of real tragic carnage is just not an easy one to answer. I found some parts of Marra’s novel really effective at conveying the brutality of the war — literally, in his depictions of torture and murder, and also more metaphysically, in his emphasis on people’s mental suffering. Is it the juxtaposition of that more tough-minded material with the more “twee” sections that is making us twitchy, do you think?

      The Orphan Master’s Son also shifts registers, but its humor (which is pretty wild) is deeply shadowed because the funniest parts are in the replicas of North Korean newspapers / propaganda, which Johnson himself has said are actually even stranger and more comical (from the outside) than his own versions. I’m thinking about this because I’m wondering why his novel awed me, even though it makes some of the same thematic and formal moves as Marra’s. Maybe Sam is right that it comes down to whether we detect passion behind the clever artistry.


  7. Claire September 13, 2016 / 6:17 am

    Hi, I wanted to let you know that I’ve now read the Orphan Master’s Son and I felt it worked much better. The wild shifts in tone somehow worked far better for me. What I really liked was how good the novel at portraying normal people just trying to live their lives in a profoundly totalitarian society and how well the gap between reality and propaganda was depicted. So thanks a lot for the recommendation


    • Rohan Maitzen September 13, 2016 / 1:28 pm

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it! You never quite know how even a book you think is flat-out marvelous will strike someone else. I finished reading it in one of those rapt trances — the kind when you probably wouldn’t even notice a fire alarm if it went off.


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