A Constellation of Vital Phenomena consumed and captivated me for some time now, to such a degree that there’s a sort of liberating feeling to have finished it, no doubt cloaked in a wistful melancholy, for I will never be able to read and experience it again. (I’m not a re-reader, nor can I see a movie more than once.)
I went through two library renewals of the hardcover book, one ebook re-borrowing, and even a few notes of the audiobook before I finished it, finally, early this week. I read it in many forms, on many devices, stretching it out so that it would not end, this memorable book, unforgettable debut (!!!!) novel by Anthony Marra.
At first I was slowed by its prose, for within each paragraph there were a thousand worlds, words which I needed to speak aloud, to digest, to watch as they floated above my head before I was able to corral them and move on. If I were one to underline or highlight passages the book would have held more lines and colors than a thousand flags. Marra’s writing humbles me, makes it seem almost ridiculous to try and do the same.
And then I found the story, a story which spun me around until I was dizzied: Sonja and Natasha, Havaa, oh Havaa, and Akhmed and Dokka, Khassan and Ramzan. Beauty amidst the ruins. Love and hope amidst despair. Darkness and light. I thought of Kundera and Calvino, of The English Patient, of so many things random and not so.
If you look at the reviews, many of them present this book as though it were written in an effort to document the history of Chechnya during the 1990’s, in the same way The Orphan Master is viewed by many to be an attempt to portray with accuracy what life is like in North Korea. Interestingly enough, Marra was Adam Johnson’s student at Stanford, and while each visited the countries they wrote about, their visits were the briefest of brief, Marra’s on a tour called “The Seven Wonders of Chechnya” which he found on the internet. Both readily acknowledge this, neither claims to have written anything but a novel, to have created a world of their own within another. Marra got to the heart of how he reconciles any possible conflict between fact and fiction in an interview with the NY Times:
“Research is not an obstacle, something to be frightened of” […]. “It can be one of the real joys of writing. Someone once said, ‘Don’t write what you know, write what you want to know.’ ”
[…] “But to make a book convincing, it’s less important that the right tree be in the right place than that the characters are emotionally real. I did the best I could to make the environment and the setting as realistic as possible, but I hope it’s the characters and the emotional reality that make the book true.”
Perhaps I’m sensitive to this dance because my latest attempt at putting words to paper involves crafting a story around true events, stealing bits and pieces of reality and padding it with a great deal of fictional invention. I’m struggling with it, often questioning what the writer’s responsibility is when their topic involves real events, real people, particularly when the event is in the recent past.
I know that there are those who defend to the death the writer’s prerogative to fictionalize with abandon and without any debt owed to fact. These are the same ones who even with the genre of memoir renounce the author’s responsibility to tell anyone’s story but his or her own, as he or she sees it, however that might differ from the take on the same events by others and irregardless of whose memories these might butt heads with.
This may be true and right, but in these times so many take word as fact without questioning it, so I tend to instead take my story farther and farther away from the truth to make it all the more clear that this is but my work, an imagined work, a fictional work, lest it be confused to be anything else.
This summer I also read Geraldine Brooks’ fictional novel about the Plague, Year of Wonders. Again, I jumped from the physical book, to the ebook, to the audiobook, the latter which I highly recommend for the narrator’s voice was perfect and really made the story come alive. Another world, another recreation of a time, a place.
I mention this book not only because I enjoyed it but also because there is a Coursera course beginning soon on historical fiction as part of which Ms. Brooks will be interviewed, along with other writers. If you haven’t done a coursera or other online class before I highly recommend it (and keep in mind that if you don’t want to turn in a thing and just “audit” it you are welcome to, always. This historical fiction class, called “Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction,” will be taught by Bruce Holsinger of UVA.
Memory by its very nature fictionalizes reality, and our biases and baggage color any attempts we make at purely objective fact (unless of course we have an army of fact checkers to make sure these are mitigated via the strident review of others). Even if we allow that historical fiction is just that, how closely can we portray reality and how can we navigate those grey areas in between it and our imaginations, once freed?