“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra

Tulip Frenzy limits itself to commentary on rockn’n’roll and, occasionally, photography, though these clearly aren’t our only interests.  We refrain from bleating about politics, and only at critical junctures do references to sports slip into our posts, and none of this is accidental.  Given that we write novels, and have reviewed books for the Wall Street Journal and other publications, one might think we’d write about the books we devour, but we don’t, and the reason is simple: it is not our intention to use Tulip Frenzy as a multi-topic venue; we like the limitations we long ago placed upon it.  Today, though, we’re going to make an exception, because events have forced our hand.  Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is the strongest first novel — and one of the best novels, period — that we have read in many years, and we are compelled to urge our readers to buy it.  In fact, you know how wild-eyed and foam-mouthed we get when trying to get you — to get everyone — to buy that new album by the Thee Oh Sees or Ty Segall?  Well, yeah, that’s what we’re up to here.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes on a horrific topic — the disintegration of a small town amidst the Russian brutality in both post-Soviet wars against Chechen independence — and delivers a deeply funny, deeply moving, perfectly wrought puzzle box of a story. The action nominally takes place over five days after Akhmed delivers his neighbor’s daughter to a hospital in a nearby city, after the Russian authorities have carted off her father, who’d already had all ten fingers amputated in a previous episode of being “disappeared.”  Akhmed is an incompetent small town doctor, but he uses the delivery of his young charge to the haughty doctor Sonja — who practically alone has been running the hospital for the better part of two wars spanning a decade — to weasel his way into a position as her assistant.  The story of these five days is set against a far longer time sequence in which Sonja left Chechnya to finish medical school in the U.K. only to return in search of her sister Natasha.  By the end of the five days, all of the stories have been resolved in a manner that is mathematically, efficiently, breathtakingly perfect, and also stunningly beautiful, though naturally sad.

A few years ago, our friend Tony Marra, with whom we worked for a decade, asked us if we might spend a moment or two talking to his son who was just then finishing college and planning on applying to post-graduate writing programs.  Tony was, as we recall, hoping we could offer practical advice to a young writer, and we assume he thought it might be useful because he knew we published novels, but had also supported our family, not by working in Starbucks or a book store, but in a sort of Wallace Stevens-like dual existence that meant donning a tie to work in, first, politics, and then in corporate jobs, while never giving up on our calling, which is to write fiction.  We said yes, of course, but the cup of coffee never came about.  And now Anthony, Tony’s son, hasn’t simply written the best first novel since, I don’t know, V, The Rachel Papers, or Americana, he’s also graduated from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, won a Whiting Prize, and is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford.  (Previous Stegner fellows?  Oh, such little-known writers as Ken Kesey, Thomas McGuane, and Robert Stone.)  It is not an exaggeration to proclaim young Marra the Bryce Harper of novelists, and unless he gets repetitive stress disorder, his future may even be brighter.  (See, this is how we usually work sports into Tulip Frenzy posts — through pop cultural allusion.)  The awards he has ahead of him may someday include the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Yeah, one novel in, we can say that; the kid’s that good.

We do not often command our vast readership to put down what they are doing and immediately order up a novel.  (To be fair, we didn’t even do this upon the recent publication of our new novelThe Geography Lesson.)  We don’t expect to be writing book reviews, or about novels, in this space in the future.  (We like Tulip Frenzy just as it is: an exceptionally juvenile outpost of punk rock fanaticism.  Plus an outlet for the occasional snapshot.) But we are pleased to break our own rules to do so here, and will conclude with this thought: if you do not immediately go and buy A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, you may still be a dear reader of this site, but you are a very foolish one.

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