Anthony Marra shot to literary acclaim with his 2013 debut novel, A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA, based on the situation in Chechnya. Can he keep the momentum going with his next book (also based in Chechnya and Russia)?
Billed as a collection of short stories, THE TSAR OF LOVE AND TECHNO is shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and receiving rave reviews. It also has one of the best titles I’ve heard of in a while. Do not listen to the marketing though: it is a novel in the same vein as LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, GOON SQUAD, or OLIVE KITTERIDGE, that is, each chapter follows a different character with a story arc that could stand alone as a short, but as various connections appear, it becomes clear that there is a bigger story that only slowly takes shape and ultimately the whole is better than the sum of the parts.
The main plot focuses on two different sets of brothers: a censor and his activist brother in the 1930s, and a student and his soldier sibling set in modern day. Other characters involve the brothers’ lovers, descendants, friends, and others, all vaguely connected by a painting. Each is sympathetic, memorable, three-dimensional.
But, if there is a flaw with the novel, it is also with the characters. Sometimes they come across as caricatures, the drunk and drug addicted depressives that Americans have come to stereotype Russians as. Though each character has a well-developed backstory explaining how they got to where they are, it is difficult to overlook how almost every single one follows this pattern.
Also, although saying the chapters are uneven would be too much, some are definitely better than others. At best, they rank among some of the finest stories published in recent years; at worst, they are memorable but average.
Other than these quibbles, however, the book is great. I won’t lie, I have not read too many American books published last year (only three…), but of those three, this is by far the best (and the other two, FORTUNE SMILES and THE SELLOUT—reviews coming soon—are no slouches either).
This book, my first Marra, convinced me not only to pick up his earlier novel but also that he has it in him to one day write a masterpiece. Although not perfect, THE TSAR OF LOVE AND TECHNO is not to be missed. And if short stories are not your thing, please do not be put off by the misleading marketing; this is really a novel.