Review: Anthony Marra’s New Novel ‘Mercury Pictures Presents’

On the bookshelf

Mercury Pictures Presents

By Anthony Marra
Hogart: 432 pages, $29

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As our country enters an increasingly divisive spiral over who did what on January 6, 2021 and whether women should have reproductive rights, it seems fair and fitting that a novel about Italian World War II fascism highlights how easy it is for all of us to fall prey to fake romantic narratives. All the better if the author is Anthony Marra, and the book “Mercury Pictures Presents” does so through the perspective of a poorly run Hollywood movie studio.

The book is almost like Fellini inside out: life itself provides the ridiculous parts. Only pretense can save us. Although protagonist Maria Lagana finds out, sometimes the imaginary is just as dangerous as the real thing. An Italian immigrant who made a dark personal choice that landed her in a Los Angeles home with her mother and various virgin aunts, Maria managed to become associate and assistant producer to co-owner Artie Feldman along with her brother Ned, of the titular dilapidated studio.

Marra, whose 2013 novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” told the story of Chechen war refugees and whose 2015 collection of stories, “The Tsar of Love and Techno,” was set in the middle of the 20th century in the USSR, has a seemingly inexhaustible collection of imagination. It can evoke both a dark Italian hut and a chatty American home, both a grotesquely bickering pair of siblings and the inner world of a Chinese-American actor.

He also knows exactly where to insert historical anecdotes and when to opt for pure invention, mixing everything with witty asides. Maria thinks that “her great-aunts’ understanding of Catholicism was so inconsistent that it couldn’t really be called monotheism. It was a protection racket. For them, “Like any invasive procedure, it was best to end the marriage while you were young enough to bounce back.”

The first third of “Mercury” feels perfectly cinematic, whirling readers through half a dozen scenes so varied they look like a series of movie trailers, more evocative than narrative. The action ping-pongs of Maria and Artie’s “Adam’s Rib” type repartee (entirely platonic, as Maria remains faithful to her true love, Eddie Lu) until her father Giuseppe’s confinement by the thugs of Mussolini and up to Artie and Ned’s Borscht-Belty Show of Punch and Judy.

If these sets were the trailers, what is the feature film? Strangely, there doesn’t seem to be any in “Mercury Pictures Presents.” After a long section in Italy that involves a stolen identity, a village boy turned mob kingpin, and a harrowing escape, we get two more long shaggy dog ​​stories: Eddie Lu acting in American propaganda films; German émigré Anna Weber looks at her architecturally accurate miniatures of Berlin used in bombing tests. The story of Vincent Cortese, a photographer whose camera is taken away due to his “enemy alien” status, is woven throughout.

Another “enemy alien” is Maria. One of Marra’s themes in this novel is confinement of all kinds. Giuseppe and his comrades, confined to an invisibly bounded “confino”, obey because they have nowhere to go, while Maria seeks a small office space hidden away on a studio lot to pursue a passion project in private. Anna mentally confines herself to the streets of Kreuzberg from beloved memory. And as for Eddie, a would-be man, his Asian features relegate him to voiceovers and bit parts, confinements reflecting another ugly facet of wartime xenophobia.

“Mercury” begins and ends in Italy, which makes sense in the logic of the plot, but its deepest meaning, if not its main action, lies in Eddie’s realization of how a government simultaneously uses and abuses citizens. Its revelation involves the treatment of Asian Americans, but given the diverse groups whose talents are being swept up and spit out by the war machine (painters, writers, scientists and more), the threat has tentacles that Marra might suitable, could reach everyone. us if nothing is done.

At one point, Artie wonders “how to act morally when moral action incites blatant immorality in response”. Could there be a more succinct way to talk about modern warfare? After meeting Leni Riefenstahl and seeing the work of the famous director in the service of the Third Reich, Maria is disturbed by “the spectacle of a filmmaker putting his undeniably singular vision at the service of an image that denied the singularity of individual experience” .

Maria decides that “Riefenstahl couldn’t be outdone…only undone” and begins planning “The False Front”, a pastiche of a production combining studio B-roll scenes of war with stripped-down new material. His project echoes the revelations of poor dispossessed photographer Vincent and recalls Susan Sontag’s essays on form.

In other words, Maria aims to show that it is not what a photographer photographs, but how: “It was the unstable presence of the photographer’s mortality…that created a sense of authenticity. It was a realism perfected by error. The constant reminder that you were looking at a faulty drive made it viscerally trustworthy. And that, of course, was manipulable.

For Eddie, participating in the fabrication of this facade ultimately proves untenable in light of Hollywood’s prejudice – not to mention the nation’s internment of Japanese Americans. Marra, however, knows he is the director of his own novel; he will not give in to disappointment and despair. Instead, it takes readers back across the Atlantic Ocean to Italy, where a great wrong is righted not by confession or the wheels of justice, but by love and forgiveness. flawless.

Is that too simplistic a conclusion, an affirmation of America’s passion for happy endings as manipulative as the fake authenticity that pisses Eddie off? Marra, however, was smart enough to sprinkle her novel with more unhappy endings, so that when that good thing happens, it feels deserved, even…authentic.

Although “Mercury Pictures Presents” is uneven and downright discursive in many places, its cinematic reach ultimately achieves greatness beyond its particularities. Also, we could all use a tall tale once in a while, especially now, when such a thing seems to slip away from the horizon with each passing day.

Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.

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