This past Christmas, I watched It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time in a few years. In college, ambition hung almost palpably in the air, and the idea of success looking any different than I imagined it at twenty made the annual tradition unbearable. But with a year abroad (and pounds of sweets) under my belt, I found it a little less sad. I’ve been thinking in the aftermath about the decency of characters like George Bailey or Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke, whose successes lie primarily in the subtly transformative effects they have on others:
[T]he effect of [Brooke’s] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno explores both this theme and its antithesis: that things can be made much more ill with you and me than they might have been, owing to the decisions of those who lived faithfully a hidden life, in fear of ending up in unmarked, unvisited tombs. Set against the bleak backdrop of a Russia I didn’t know much about, the stories criss-cross like a loop of string between a pair of deft hands, creating in the end, an unforgettable picture of the way our lives bump against each other’s in tragic and beautiful ways, the ways that the choices we make and don’t make linger with us, and the way that memories of lives unlived can be as vivid as the rest. The landscape of despair against which the protagonists build their lives–a toxic lake, a disintegrating metal forest, a setting devoid of color except yellows and grays–is alleviated by Marra’s poetic descriptions and subtle humor.
Over the following weeks, I designed a brochure. The central question was how to trick tourists into coming to Grozny voluntarily. For inspiration, I studied pamphlets from the tourist bureaus of other urban hellscapes: Baghdad, Pyongyang, Houston.
While the stories can stand alone, their resonance is amplified by their connections to each other. The structure echoes the way the characters’ lives converge and paints a picture that is much, much more than the sum of its parts. That said, the first story, “The Leopard,” was so beautifully written and constructed that I think it will remain one of my favorite pieces of writing of all time, full of resilient optimism and faith in the transcendent power of the “unhistoric acts” of individuals. One of the best things about “The Leopard” is that once it’s over, there are eight more stories left to read.