Using fiction to summon the glittering, Golden Age of Hollywood

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Using fiction to summon the glittering, Golden Age of Hollywood
The author Anthony Marra, at Kings Theatre in New York on July 7, 2022. Marra’s “Mercury Pictures Presents,” his long-awaited second novel, is a homage to the movies and to his immigrant family. Bryan Derballa/The New York Times.

by Sarah Lyall

NEW YORK, NY.- After a funeral on Long Island not too long ago, author Anthony Marra and his family gathered somberly at the gravesite for the burial. But there was a moment of unexpected slapstick when an older relative began to fret about the graveyard’s confusing layout. Suddenly she yelled in a thick New York accent: “How the hell do I get out of here?”

It was a small example of one of Marra’s favorite preoccupations in fiction: the thin line between the tragic and the comic, how they dance with and undercut each other. The author of two much-loved, much-praised books set in the former Soviet Union — a novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” (2013), and a set of interconnected short stories, “The Tsar of Love and Techno” (2015) — Marra takes an unsentimental view of the cruelty of fate, with a keen eye for the ridiculous.

“I grew up among people who made jokes at serious moments,” he said. “Comedy has always felt like the most eloquent expression of absurdity, a natural reaction to darkness.”

Marra, 37, was speaking over lunch, between mouthfuls of pasta and salad. (In honor of the Italian Americans who feature prominently in his new novel, “Mercury Pictures Presents,” we met at an old-style Italian restaurant in Stamford, Connecticut, a spot between his house in New Haven, Connecticut, and my house in New York.) In person, he is quizzical, courteous, excited by tiny details, quick to share a self-deprecating anecdote and earnest about the craft of writing.

“Mercury Pictures Presents,” which Hogarth will publish Tuesday, is set in Los Angeles in the 1940s, and is both a love letter to Hollywood’s Golden Age, whose films Marra watched with his father as a boy in Washington, D.C., and an homage to his own immigrant family. Its action revolves around a scrappy film studio — a cut-rate version of Warner Bros. — that seems chronically on the verge of going bust but gets a reprieve during World War II, when the government hires it to make propaganda movies. The studio functions as a community for a vivid cast of characters: actors, movie executives, political exiles, émigrés and a junior producer named Maria Lagana, an escapee from Mussolini’s Italy who serves as the novel’s moral center.

The novel hopscotches between the United States and southern Italy — where Maria’s father remains as a “confinati,” someone under internal exile for subversive views — with occasional stops in Washington, D.C., and Germany, among other places. Deeply researched, with fictional characters appearing alongside historical ones (Gerald Nye, the isolationist U.S. senator from North Dakota; actor Bela Lugosi), “Mercury Pictures” also introduces us to things that seem invented but are not, like the government program of building facsimiles of German and Japanese villages in Utah for bombing practice.

The book reflects familiar Marra themes: how extreme times force people into impossible devil’s bargains; how propaganda muddies reality; how hard it is to get to the truth of anything, except perhaps by piecing it together long afterward; how ordinary people can find unexpected reservoirs of heroism. With its portrait of America in extremis after the shock of Pearl Harbor, the novel offers sobering parallels to today, like the demonization of immigrants, the rise of America-first nationalism, the slippery nature of truth.

Marra has a facility for attending to both the sweep of history and the minutiae of his characters’ lives with pathos and humanity. “It has to do with his talent as a writer, but really, it’s that he’s interested in everyone,” said writer and bookstore owner Ann Patchett, who met Marra when his first book was published. “He’s willing to look at things the rest of us don’t want to look at ever, and then he’s still able to be funny and a great storyteller. There are people who pull off one or the other but there’s practically no one who pulls off both.”

Among the characters in “Mercury” are a trio of rowdy, fatalistic Italian spinsters, Maria’s great-aunts, whose house is full of plastic figurines of saints who are expected to answer their prayers or face their wrath. Their “understanding of Catholicism was so fickle you couldn’t really call it monotheism,” Marra writes. “It was a protection racket.”

The women are named after Marra’s own great-aunts, first-generation Italian Americans with a similarly curdled worldview. (“You poor girl,” one of the fictional aunts tells Maria. “You have your whole life ahead of you.”)

The last of Marra’s aunts, Mimi, died in 2015.

“She lived to 98 and hated every second of it,” Marra said. “Her love language was that she told people that her grandnephew was better than theirs.”

When Marra’s first book came out, Mimi drove around to different bookstores, moving copies of the novel closer to the front door. “I’m sure she didn’t read it herself, but she would be damn sure that you would,” Marra said.

He was not destined to be a writer. After high school, he put off college — he had gotten into Boston University, but did not want to go — and took a job as a clerk at a UPS store. His alarmed parents, both lawyers, insisted that he do something intellectually productive, so he signed up for a creative-writing class at a community center, the youngest student by about four decades.

He loved it, despite the class’ unenthusiastic response to his first effort, which he described as a short story “about a troubled 18-year-old smoking too many cigarettes behind the UPS store.”

Marra ditched the idea of Boston and went instead to the University of Southern California. He spent part of his junior year studying in St. Petersburg, Russia, which gave him the idea for his first book, set against the Chechen wars, and his second, which begins in Stalinist Russia and ends sometime in the future. He spent years on the new book, but wrote much of it during the pandemic, a time of unexpected fruitfulness because it allowed him to fall so deeply into his made-up story. (He knew things were going well when he could hear his wife, Kappy Mintie, a senior researcher at Yale’s Lens Media Lab, laughing at his drafts from the adjoining room.

It is a feature of reading Marra that you come to love his characters and care about their fates, even as you find that they’re expendable. How is a reader meant to think about what feels like a cruel bait-and-switch?

“A novel shouldn’t offer false consolation or false hope, and it shouldn’t skirt over the historical realities of a given period,” he said. “Part of that is acknowledging that sometimes awful things happen to good people. It would have denied the characters their dignity if it didn’t try to express accurately the kind of situations that people found themselves in during this period.”

He is an unexpectedly sunny person, despite the dark themes he explores.

“The page is where the darkness goes, and it doesn’t dampen my mood,” he said. “My outlook is that I’m pretty cheerful. I get to write every day. I get to vanish into these wonderful worlds, and I don’t think anyone in that position can be anything but grateful.”

Thinking about this question of cheerfulness, Marra sent an email after he got home, with a further explanation.

“One of the things I’m always struck by when doing historical research is how rarely people are able to predict what lies ahead of them — the bad, definitely, but also the good,” he wrote. “The uncertainty of the future is an understandable source of dread, but I think that very uncertainty is also a cause for hope.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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