How do you write an absorbing novel about unspeakable things? It's always a tricky business, and an editor I know once described the dilemma this way: "A reader needs to want to go there." What "there" means is the self-contained world of the book. And what would make a reader want to go deeply into a world of hopelessness and seemingly perpetual war, a world of torture and intimidation and exploding land mines? There are many answers. One of the most obvious, of course, is the language. If it's powerful enough, it can make you want to "go there." But if it's all about churning violence and inhumanity, will you really be compelled to stay there, fully present and not looking away, until the last page?
I was thinking about all of this as I read — and stayed in — Anthony Marra's amazing first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. The story, which takes place in Chechnya, moving back and forth in time over recent history, includes some tough scenes, such as descriptions of torture and amputation. There's a terrifying, Wild West lawlessness at work. But it's exactly that — and the brilliant writing — that kept me committed to that world and the people in it. In fact, the people also kept me there. The main characters are vivid and real and stuck, and I guess I wanted to be stuck along with them.
When the novel opens, both writing and character are on display:
"On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones. While the girl dressed, Akhmed, who hadn't slept at all, paced outside the bedroom door, watching the sky brighten on the other side of the window glass; the rising sun had never before made him feel late. When she emerged from the bedroom, looking older than her eight years, he took her suitcase and she followed him out the front door. He had led the girl to the middle of the street before he raised his eyes to what had been her house. 'Havaa, we should go,' he said, but neither moved."
Anthony Marra is a Stegner fellow and a recipient of the Whiting Writers' Award.
Havaa, a bright and curious little girl caught in unlivable circumstances, is at the center of the story, and without the contrast of her partial innocence, the book might collapse like the remnants of that burned-down house. Her father, who previously had his fingers cut off during interrogation and torture, was returned to her, only to be "disappeared" in the night. But it soon becomes clear that the Feds not only want her father, they want Havaa too, and they are going to come back to get her. So Akhmed, her kind neighbor, tries to take her somewhere "safe," which in this case is a relative word.
The rest of the novel belongs mostly to Akhmed, a failed sometime doctor, but it also belongs to Sonja, a capable, devoted doctor at the almost entirely equipment-free shell of a hospital where Akhmed takes Havaa in his quest for her safety. At the beginning of the book, as I was introduced to day-to-day life in Chechnya, I kept nervously referring to Wikipedia pages, thinking that if I understood the complex history of the region, and was fortified by details of the first and second Chechen wars and the role of Stalin at the root of all this, among other things, that I would be better prepared for what was to come.
As if. There's no rational ordering of events that could have prepared me for what happens in this broken landscape. And besides, I've come to realize lately that there's something to be said for being an unprepared reader, a naked reader in the wilderness of a novel, who trusts the writer to provide all the necessary information.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is one of the most accomplished and affecting books I've read in a very long time, though it isn't perfect. Once in a while Marra broadcasts his character's intentions a little too directly. You can almost feel his desire to pull loose ends together, and I don't blame him, for the material he's working with often lacks order and reason. But he really doesn't need to try so hard in those moments. The writing moves us forward, as do the characters, who to stay sane sometimes need to burrow into the past.
It's true of the marvelous character Khassan, an old man who once worked diligently on a comprehensive 3,302-page volume of Chechen history. He submits the book to three different publishers, only to be told by the national publisher in Moscow that he needed to send in three typed copies. "Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes," but he buys the "postage, paper," and "typewriter ribbons," and commences the endless task of typing the whole thing up repeatedly, at which point he is told that the only part that would be published was the "prehistory," which only goes up to the year 1547.
"But that's just the first chapter of my book," Khassan says.
"You must be delirious in your excitement," says the editor.
The tragedies in this novel, large and small, come rapid-fire, and are so various that there's no Wikipedia page that could ever explain them. But despite everything, people here keep living their lives in that Samuel Beckett-y, "I can't go on, I'll go on" way. In fact, the entire Chechen world on display can often feel ripped right out of Beckett. Here's an early conversation between Akhmed and Sonja:
"'Last month he told me that George Bush had been reelected,' Sonja said" (speaking of a friend who lives in London and therefore knows what's going on in the world).
"The American president," Sonja said, looking away.
"I thought Ronald McDonald was president."
"You can't be serious."...
"Wasn't it Ronald McDonald who told Gorbachev to tear down the wall?"
Though the lives lived in this novel can seem unbearable, what Anthony Marra has done is to diligently describe them in passionate, extraordinary prose. In A Constellation of Vital Phenomena they become not only "write-able," but also highly, deeply readable.