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Review: Anthony Marra’s New Novel “Mercury Pictures Presents”

Review: Anthony Marra’s New Novel “Mercury Pictures Presents”

On the shelf

Mercury Pictures presents

By Anthony Marra
Hogart: 432 pages, $29

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As our country becomes increasingly divided over who did what on January 6, 2021 and whether women should have reproductive rights, it seems right and proper for a novel about World War II Italian fascism to highlight how easy it is for all of us to fall prey to false romantic narratives. All the better if the author is Anthony Marra, and the book “Mercury Pictures Presents” does it through the perspective of a poorly run film studio in Hollywood.

The book almost sounds like Fellini in reverse: Life itself provides the ridiculous parts. Only imagination can save us. As the main character Maria Lagana discovers, sometimes the make-up is as dangerous as the reality. An Italian immigrant who has made a dark personal choice that lands her in a house in Los Angeles with her mother and various maiden aunts, Maria has managed to become an assistant producer and deputy to Artie Feldman, the co-owner, with her brother Ned, of the titular dilapidated the studio.

Marra, whose 2013 novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” told the story of Chechen war refugees, and whose 2015 story collection, “The Tsar of Love and Techno,” was set in the mid-20th century Soviet Union, has a seemingly inexhaustible imagination. He can conjure up both a gloomy Italian cottage and a gossipy American household, both a farcical 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 choose pure invention, and weaves it all together with witty asides. Maria believes that “my aunt’s understanding of Catholicism was so unstable that you couldn’t really call it monotheism. It was a protection racket.” For them, “Like any invasive procedure, it was best to get a marriage over with while you were young enough to jump back.”

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The first third of “Mercury” feels aptly cinematic, whirling readers through half a dozen scenes so varied that they feel like a series of movie trailers, more evocative than narrative. The action ping-pongs from Maria and Artie’s “Adam’s Rib”-like party (entirely platonic, as Maria remains steadfast to her true love, Eddie Lu) back to her father Giuseppe’s incarceration of Mussolini’s thugs and on to Artie and Ned’s Borscht-Belty Punch and the Judy show.

If these sets were the trailers, what is the feature film? Oddly enough, there doesn’t seem to be one in “Mercury Pictures Presents.” After a long section in Italy involving a stolen identity, a village boy turned mafia kingpin and a harrowing escape, we get two more long shaggy-dog stories: Eddie Lu in American propaganda films; German émigré Anna Weber looks at her architecturally precise miniatures of Berlin used in bomb test runs. Interwoven is the story of Vincent Cortese, a photographer whose camera is taken from him because of his “enemy alien” status.

"Mercury Pictures Presents: A Novel" by Anthony Marra

Maria is another “hostile alien”. One of Marra’s themes in this novel is confinement of all kinds. Giuseppe and his comrades, confined to an invisible demarcated “confino”, comply because they have nowhere else to go, while Maria seeks out a small hidden office space on a studio lot to pursue a passion project in private. Anna mentally confines herself to the Kreuzberg streets in fond memory. And as for Eddie, a potential leading man, his Asian features are relegated to voiceovers and bit parts, confinements that reflect another ugly facet of wartime xenophobia.

“Mercury” begins and ends in Italy, which makes sense within the logic of the plot, but its deepest meaning, if not the main action, lies in Eddie’s realization of how a government simultaneously uses and abuses citizens. His epiphany involves the treatment of Asian Americans, but given the various 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 agree, could reach us all if not is marked off.

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At one point, Artie wonders “how to act morally when moral action calls for rampant immorality in response.” Could there be a more concise way to talk about modern warfare? After Maria meets Leni Riefenstahl and watches the famous director’s work in the service of the Third Reich, she becomes troubled by “the spectacle of a filmmaker pressing her undeniably unique vision into the service of an image that denied the specificity of individual experience.”

Maria decides that “Riefenstahl could not be outdone … only regretted” and begins planning “The False Front,” a pastiche of a production that combines studio B-roll of war scenes with bare-bones new material. Her project echoes the revelations of poor obsessed photographer Vincent, bringing to mind 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 unsteady presence of the photographer’s mortality … that created a sense of authenticity. It was realism perfected by mistake. The constant reminder that you were looking at a defective disc made it believable. And of course this was manipulable.”

For Eddie, participating in the production of that facade ultimately proves unsustainable in light of Hollywood’s prejudices—not to mention the nation’s internment of Japanese Americans. However, Marra knows that he is the director of his own novel; he will not give in to disappointment and despair. Instead, he brings readers back across the Atlantic to Italy, where a great wrong is righted, not through confession or the wheel of justice, but through enduring love and forgiveness.

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Is this also a conclusion, a confirmation of the American passion for happy endings as manipulative as the false authenticity that puts Eddie on edge? However, Marra has been smart enough to sprinkle her novel with unhappier endings, so that when this one good thing happens, it feels earned, even … authentic. While “Mercury Pictures Presents” is uneven and downright discursive in many places, its cinematic scope ultimately achieves a grandeur beyond the details. Besides, we can all use a grand narrative every now and then, especially now, when something like this seems to recede past the horizon with each passing day.

Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.

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