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.
But 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 Vigil, to 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.