Notes on the Craft of Writing: From story to novel in Anthony Marra’s CHECHNYA and A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA

That headline is a bit of misdirection, since this post will focus on Anthony Marra’s short story, Chechnya, which was my first introduction to Marra.  Chechnya was initially published in  Narrative Magazine’s Fall 2009 issue, having won their Spring story contest, and was anthologized in the 2010 Pushcart collection.

Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is based on this story.  It is due to be published on May 7 by Hogarth (an imprint of Random House).  It’s generating significant word of mouth already; it is the #1 IndieNext pick (as voted by the member stores of the American Booksellers Association.)  Before reading the novel, I wanted to go back to reread the story to see how Marra managed to develop the story into the novel.  Short stories, with their compression, intolerance of unnecessary detail, and use of imagery to help convey their emotional landscape, can be more akin to poetry than to novels and I look forward to exploring the two reading experiences.

Rereading Chechnya now was as much of a shock as it was the first time.  The story starts with a difficult situation and gets darker, and then darker again, as though Marra was pushing himself – how deep could he go and not lose his characters or his reader?  How ambitious could he be in the structure of the story and still hold it together?  The miracle of this story is that he maintains the narrative tension and keeps the reader connected to his character even as he strips away, piece by piece, everything that resembles hope, and still keeps the reader reading – and hoping.  Marra breaks multiple rules of short story writing, and succeeds with a small masterpiece.

Here is the first paragraph:

“After her sister, Natasha, died, Sonja began sleeping in the hospital. She returned home to wash her clothes a few days a month, but those days became fewer and fewer. No reason to return, no need to wash her clothes. She only wears hospital scrubs anyway.”

A half sentence in, and we are already deep into a story of loss and a narrowing of hope, telegraphed by the discarded clothes, the uninhabited home, the setting limited to the hospital.  And we switch from past tense to present, a way to make the narrative immediate, urgent.   Details become metaphors.  Akhmed, a local man, brings in a 10-year-old orphan to Sonja’s hospital; on noticing his beard, Sonja first “thinks he’s a religious man, then remembers that most men have grown their beards out. Few have shaving cream, fewer have mirrors. The war has made the country’s cheeks and chins devout.”  This sentence is a wonderful example of conveying the surface of individual religious expression, and the inability to judge a person’s motive by their appearance.

The point of view shifts from present to past and back, from Sonja’s point of view to Akhmed’s toNatasha’s, and back.   It’s a story-writing rule of thumb that the limitations of the form requires only one point of view.  But breaking that rule works here, perhaps because each segment is brief, but mostly because so much is at stake and Marra is so deft at establishing those stakes immediately for each character.  People die, in prostitution or bombs or torture, or are  they are “disappeared.”  It stops just short of overwhelming the reader because Marra has such compassion for his characters and tells in a matter-of-fact way, from an almost repertorial distance.  Emotions are never belabored; we simply see the characters moving through the story.  Here’s an example:  “Natasha spent a week in jail on prostitution and indecency charges before being transferred to a clinic specializing in victims of human trafficking.”

This gifted writer deserves his Pushcart and Atlantic’s Student Writing Contest.  He’s a Stegner fellow and an Iowa Writer’s workshop graduate; I am eager to see how he puts his talent and training to use in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

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