Hogarth 2013 (379 pages)
Finding Substitutions for Loss
by Mark Hummel
A failed doctor, unable to mend the ailing, sketches portraits of refugees fleeing war and paints life-sized painted plywood cutouts of those disappeared from his village. A refugee, conscripted into prostitution and forced heroin addiction, now returned to the place and the war from which she sought refuge, draws the cityscape over a curtained window of buildings now missing or ravaged by bombs. A father, who has lost his fingers in pointless, cruel interrogation, turns to his child to become his hands. Another doctor severs the limbs of landmine victims with the ease of lopping branches from trees, substituting in her efficiency the loss of a disappeared sister and the life of comfort and love she could have had in London. A father saves his voice and his love for the son he has created by love rather than the one created by blood, this now unwanted son who informs on their neighbors. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, the title itself a substitute for the definition of life according to an aged medical text, creates brilliant layers of substitutions of love for a populace slowly being exterminated by hate. Over-arching the entire novel is another substitution—those filling the role of parents and caregivers for others stripped from their families by an illogical and chaotic war—acting out a tale brought down from the Bible and the Koran.
Set inside a layered rendering of the wars and their aftermaths that destroyed Chechnya from 1994 to 2004, Marra takes the reader into terrain—historical, literal, and political—that we should be embarrassed for not knowing. Long-listed for the National Book Award and short-listed by countless “best of” lists of 2013 fiction, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a literary debut worth every piece of praise it has garnered. So adroitly does the novel manage complex layers of time and overlapping events, a reader would never imagine this is Anthony Marra’s first novel. Certainly his background demonstrates all the vestiges of America’s literary incubators—a degree from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford—but one remains shocked at the knowledge Marra demonstrates of the wars that have razed Chechnya or the control he exerts over satisfyingly complex and self-contradictory characters or the maturity of recognition present in this parent story of caring for a variety of displaced orphans. Perhaps most impressive is how beautiful Marra is able to depict images and actions that should be so ugly; instead he salvages beauty from the very language he employs and the precise details he uses. If you are a reader of traditional print books because you are forever writing in the margins, your margins of this book will be filled to overflowing if only marking the moments of breathtaking and exacting prose. Everywhere Marra shows us the dignity and the beauty of people we might otherwise dismiss as inept, or as cold, those we might regard as without meaning or those already destroyed by the cruelty around them. If this is where Anthony Marra starts his career, it is difficult to imagine and wonderful to anticipate the books he will write in his future.