Anthony Marra's debut novel is a marvel. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena describes, in astonishingly beautiful prose, five days in a rural village and bombed-out hospital in Chechnya during wartime. As the characters — including a doctor, a hunted child, a historian, and an informant — try to adapt and survive, their histories, connections, and desires are unveiled. Marra has created a breathtaking work of haunting, evocative fiction.
Ann Patchett calls A Constellation of Vital Phenomena "Simply spectacular....If this is where Anthony Marra begins his career, I can't imagine how far he will go," and Maile Meloy declares, "You will finish it transformed." We are proud to have chosen A Constellation of Vital Phenomena for Volume 39 of Indiespensable.
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Jill Owens: The first sentence of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena sets the tone immediately. "On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones." Was that always the way the book began?
Anthony Marra: No, actually. That was one of the final sentences I wrote. It had a different opening paragraph for the first five drafts of the novel. About two days before my agent sent it out to editors, she said that we needed a new opening paragraph. So that was one of the last portions of the book that I wrote.
Marra: Yes. I think it was one of those situations where, once you reach the end, you can totally grasp what the book is about, and what its concerns and obsessions and themes really are. It felt much more natural to write the opening paragraph after knowing all of that. Previously, I think I was looking at it from the wrong end of the tunnel.
Jill: The timing and the pacing seemed a little unusual to me, in that the reader takes in details like Akhmed's paintings, for example, the first time they're mentioned, without really understanding what they are. There's a constant back and forth, and connecting one thing to another throughout the whole book, which makes it actually feel like a constellation to me. How did writing like that work?
Marra: I know it's a rather complex plot, but it didn't feel very complex as I was going. I was always looking back to what has come before. It's probably not a very good idea to compare a novel to a board game, but I almost felt like during the first 100 pages, I was creating all of the pieces that were on the board. The rest of the novel was going back and looking at those pieces, and seeing how they moved, and how they revolved and collided and connected with one another.
I was very much aware of, and intentionally reusing, what came before because that feels like the most accurate version of how we live our lives, how it just unfolds. We're constantly going back and touching upon things that had meaning or significance in the past.
Jill: Why did you want to structure it over a period of five days? Which, of course, is in some ways such a short amount of time, but then also you're learning an immense amount about the characters' past, and also a little bit about their futures, within those days.
Marra: It was sort of a balancing act because I wanted the novel to cover the entire span of these two wars. At the same time, I knew that I needed some sort of suspense in this through line that would always pull the readers forward. You might dip back 10 years, but hopefully you're always wanting to know what's happening in this more condensed, suspenseful, limited time frame. A lot of the passages that take place in prior years are more summative. They're less scene-based to some extent, I think, than the chapters that are set up across the period of these five days. Being able to move between the two gives the book both a breadth and a depth that I don't think I would have really been able to achieve, had it been set over 10 years or just purely over these five days.
Jill: Why did you want to write about Chechnya during the wars? Did you feel at all strange about taking that on, as an American writer?
Marra: Yes, absolutely. I was actually thinking about this earlier this morning — thinking about where the book actually began. I think it may have begun as far back as when I was 18, when my younger sister had had some spinal surgery and there were a lot of complications. She was in a hospital in Delaware for three or four months. It was touch and go for a little while. I would go up there and visit every weekend. I remember spending a lot of time walking around this, by and large, empty hospital.
So I thought about the idea of the relationship between patients and surgeons, and the families of these patients and surgeons. It's almost a spiritual connection between the two.You look at a surgeon as you would a secular priest, almost, if it's your child, if it's your sister on the operating table. That was an idea that very much has interested me and I've wanted to explore for some time.
I didn't really act upon it until I came to Chechnya as a subject. My first real awareness of Chechnya came when I was a college student, studying in Russia. I arrived in St. Petersburg about two months after Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated for her reports on Chechnya. I lived with an elderly woman and her grown children in an apartment that was not too far from the neighborhood military cadet school.
I would see these 16-year-old kids marching up and down the street in their blue military uniforms, and about a half mile beyond the school was a metro station. There you would also see young kids, but they were a couple of years older. They were wearing combat fatigues rather than the dress uniform, and most of them were missing limbs. They were all veterans of the Chechen wars.
Chechnya really seemed like this chasm that was separating these two streets, and from that point on I really became fascinated with it. It wasn't a part of the world I really knew anything about. The wars there haven't gotten the same attention as, say, the wars in Bosnia.
I read all of the nonfiction that I could find on Chechnya, and all the while I was searching for a novel that was set there. I couldn't find a single novel written in English that was set in the period of the two most recent Chechen wars. I came to write this novel because it was the type of book that I wanted to read, that I wanted to pick up on the shelf of a bookstore. But it wasn't there yet. To view this route, I felt like I came to it more as a reader than a writer.
Jill: As a reader coming to it, I knew so little about this region and its history and what has gone on there. I think you do a really fantastic job of seamlessly weaving in that information as part of the characters' history, so that the reader has enough to go on, but it doesn't ever seem didactic, the way that you're learning it.
Marra: I think Khassan was a huge resource in terms of getting that information through. [Ed. note: Khassan is a character in the book who has spent much of his life writing and rewriting a history of Chechnya.] As you said, novels that wear their research on their shirt sleeve are often slightly disappointing to me. We go to different books for different reasons. I feel like books that masquerade history as fiction can often feel just like that. Writing about a place that I knew few Americans had much awareness of... it was a delicate balance, I guess, to incorporate the relevant contextual information and relevant histories, without making it feel like you're reading Khassan's 3,000-page tome.
I very much wanted this to be a book about civilians. It's a war novel that's about surgeons rather than soldiers, about everyday people. I was much more interested in conveying that experience than I was in the politics and policies behind the Chechen wars.
Jill: I think another thing that you do well is conveying the absurdity and the surreality of life during wartime.
Marra: I think those absurdities abound. Black humor and gallows humor in particular are ways of coping with some really devastating losses that happened historically to people in Chechnya on a generational basis, it seems.
When I visited Chechnya, I was taken aback at first because people would regularly make jokes about kidnapping me. I went to the mountains for a weekend with a couple of guys, and one of them posted a picture of me on Twitter, under the caption, "The first American tourist in Chechnya."
When I got back home, I was reading through some of the comments that his friends had made, and one guy said, "Are you pointing a gun at him? Are you making him smile at gunpoint?" or something like that. Another was, "Is his family in black hoods just out of frame?" Playing on very real fears of foreigners who travel to Chechnya, but all aimed at humor.
Jill: There's such a complexity of tone in your book because there is a lot of humor in it, which I loved. Sometimes it is that black gallows humor, and sometimes it's just the humor between Sonja and Natasha, for example, as siblings.
Marra: I really think that life unfolds at a variety of tonal ranges. Even when things are rather bleak, I think that there are plenty of moments of humor. One book that I had in my mind while writing this was City of Thieves by David Benioff because there are so few historical atrocities that can really compare to the Siege of Leningrad, and in that novel he honors that suffering without ever forsaking hope or humor or love or compassion or joy.
That tonal range that he is able to bring to that novel was something that I had in mind when I was working on Constellation. I really think that in books and in life you need to have the high and the low notes, and a novel that's relentlessly tragic somehow feels untrue to me. That was something I was conscious of.
A lot of this was pulled from events that I had read about in Chechnya, anecdotes. Anna Politkovskaya wrote a collection of journalism called A Small Corner of Hell, and it's incredibly bleak. But there are moments where it's also quite funny. She's traveling around with these Chechens in 1999 in the Second Chechen War, and they are fully aware of the absurdity of their circumstances, and they make light of it from time to time.
Jill: One of my favorite lines of dialogue was the exchange between Sonja and Akhmed about who Ronald McDonald is, when he says, "I might be an idiot, but I would never eat a hamburger cooked by a clown." [Laughter]
Havaa is such a fantastic character. One of my colleagues that was reading Constellation said, "She's a very believable child. Her chapter, from a close, third-person point of view, really feels like someone in her situation would be thinking that way." How did you inhabit her character?
Marra: I'm glad to hear that because that was one of my worries. Precocious children in fiction... I try to avoid them. She was definitely a character who was quite difficult and I had to go back to again and again, to try to make her whimsy feel naturally developed as an escapist response to her circumstances. As I was working on her sections, I was also thinking of her in relation to Sonja. I think one of the great things about kids is they're so wonderfully and willfully illogical, and coming against the sort of brutal reason of Sonja makes for a nice foil, I think.
Havaa only has one chapter in her point of view, and yet the organizing principle of the novel is really about either her safety or her endangerment. All of the main characters are either working to hide her or find her. She's really the driving force of the book.
Jill: How did you think about character in this book in general? By the end, even the most unsympathetic characters have their stories explained. It doesn't necessarily make them likeable, but it gives their actions more depth.
Marra: One of the things that I was thinking about a lot is how I personally would react in these circumstances, or how my friends, how my family would react. It's very easy to be sitting in my apartment in California and to think, I would never inform on my friends or neighbors. Butwar and trauma and violence can magnify small little quirks of our character. There's one line in the novel, describing Ramzan as somebody who in another life, his avarice or his character defects, or whatever the term was, would manifest in nothing more malicious than a cheated game of chess. War can take our small failings and triumphs and really enlarge them to unbelievable extents. I think that that's true for both characters like Ramzan and characters like Sonja and Akhmed, who are really almost forced into roles of heroism because of the war.
I also wanted to be totally without judgment in this novel. I think that you can make just about anybody sympathetic if you withhold judgment, and you simply try to inhabit their psyche and render on the page the actual experience of their lives.
Jill: I was really moved by Ramzan's moment of religious ecstasy. I was interested in that, and the religious politics of that region, because it was not something I'd really understood in terms of the war.
Marra: The Chechens have traditionally practiced Sufism, which is a sort of peaceful, very tolerant Islamic sect. The Whirling Dervishes in Turkey are of the Sufi faith. One of the real tragedies of the war is how that peaceful and tolerant sect has been corrupted by the influence of Arab Wahhabism, which is a much more doctrinal version of Islam that promotes a literal interpretation of the Koran and is behind a lot of the terrorist attacks you see in Chechnya today. Things like suicide bombings were never part of the First Chechen War, which was really more a war of independence.
Over the course of the '90s, more and more of these Wahhabi influences came into Chechnya through Saudi charities and Arab mujahideen who fought in Afghanistan, and the general rise of global Islamic radicalism. That's something I tried to convey a little bit through the novel. I don't think I really incorporated it as much as I might have wanted to.
When I was in Chechnya I was able to see impromptu zikr, which is this sung prayer, and I've never really experienced anything like it. I grew up in the Catholic Church, and I felt like the comparison was maybe a Southern Methodist service, where there are calls and responses and hallelujahs, and it's this really musical expression of faith. I think it's something that the wars have adulterated a little bit.
Jill: As a person who grew up Southern Methodist, I can see what you mean by that comparison. This might be a minor thing, but I found Khassan thinking about the Abraham story of sacrificing his son to be a really moving and disturbing undercurrent. Then I thought about it, and I looked it up — because I was thinking about it from a Methodist perspective — and I didn't realize that there was disagreement between Christianity and Islam as to which son, Isaac or Ishmael, was the one that was supposed to have been sacrificed.
Marra: Yeah, exactly. I actually specifically didn't mention his musings about it. It's always just "the son" because I thought if I put in Ishmael it might be too confusing for an American audience that grew up believing that Isaac was the sacrificed one. I'm very impressed that you caught that.
Jill: I thought it was a nice analogy for Khassan's situation.
Marra: There are actually two parallel biblical and Koranic stories at work there. There's that one, which is the most blatant, but also, the idea of an orphan being taken into a family responsible for his or her orphanhood is slightly inspired by Moses being found in the reeds and being taken into the Pharaoh's family. As I said, when I grew up, I went to church every weekend, and I went to Sunday school and all that. Some of those old stories are still knocking around in my head.
Jill: They're resonant stories for a reason.
In the book, the phrase, "a constellation of vital phenomena" comes from a medical dictionary. Is that, in fact, where you found your title?
Marra: Yes, it is. I think it's the second entry for the word life in... I can't remember which medical dictionary, but if you just type in "a constellation of vital phenomena" in Google, it'll pop up.
Jill: Actually, now your book is what pops up. [Laughter]
Marra: It was definitely a fortuitous little twist of fate. There are these six vital phenomena — organization, irritability, adaptation, movement, growth, and reproduction, and there are six point-of-view characters in the novel. Life is structured as an intersection and a constellation, really, of these six vital phenomena. The novel was structured as a constellation of these six characters, and as soon as I saw it, I just had to use this as the title.
Jill: You mentioned David Benioff. Who else do you think of as your influences?
Marra: I tend to gravitate towards Latin American and European writers. One of the books that really impacted me was The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa. All of his books play with time in really fascinating ways, and in writing Constellation, I looked to his use of time quite a bit. José Saramago is another favorite. A local writer, or local for me since I'm from Washington, DC, is Edward P. Jones. His omniscience is something that I really inflect in the narration of Constellation. I really love how he was able to step away and tell about a character who never actually appears in the known world. The cousin's wife of a minor character in the known world gets a paragraph or a page.
Jill: That reminds me that in one beautiful, long sentence with lots of cascading clauses, you tell the entire life story of one of the very minor characters — a younger brother whose name I can't remember. I love that you do that, that you encapsulate this whole life in one sentence.
I ended up writing four or five full drafts of the book. Each time I would go back and start from page one. The story changed here and there, but really the drafts were a way of trying to find the right voice. Tonally, the first drafts were much more serious, I think, than the final one, with fewer high points and humor.
The first few drafts were also very narrow in their perspective. When you were in a character's head, you never moved out of it, so you never got these predicted futures of minor characters which pop up throughout the book.
As I was going through each of these drafts, it gradually expanded outward, and at some point I realized I didn't want there to be a minor character in the novel.I wanted every character, in some way, to get their moment in the sun, even if it was just for the length of a sentence. That idea of trying to make the voice and the prose more generous and more inclusive was really what each draft was about.
Jill: Who are you reading and enjoying lately?
Marra: I'm actually halfway through the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn. I'm loving them. I don't think they're for everyone. The second book is basically about this two-night heroin binge. But the writing is just gorgeous, so I'm really enjoying that. I finished last week The Forever War by Dexter Filkins, which is probably the best book I've read on Iraq or Afghanistan, precisely because he's not that interested in generals and presidents and leaders but rather the everyday experience of civilians on the ground, who have little say in what their countries have pressed upon them.
Books mentioned in this post