Some read “The Tsar of Love and Techno” and see it as a novel. Others take it as a collection of linked short stories, as is described on the book jacket.
It might more accurately be called a literary mixtape, in which the writer, Anthony Marra, tells a story that stretches 80 years and several thousand miles, connecting people through a variety of objects. A cassette tape of techno music. A rather bland painting by a little-known Chechen painter. A doctored photograph of a prima ballerina.
Marra’s acclaimed story collection is the subject of this year’s Spokane is Reading project. He will be in town on Thursday for presentations in Spokane and Spokane Valley.
“Tsar” is his second book; his first was the 2013 novel “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” which won the first John Leonard Prize from the National Book Critics Circle for a first book. Both are set in Russia and Chechnya.
Marra, who teaches fiction writing at Stanford University, spent time in St. Petersburg as a college student and went back to Russia and visited Chechnya for research. His adventure in Chechnya served as the basis for the most well-known story from “Tsar,” “The Grozny Tourist Bureau,” which won a National Magazine Award for fiction. The story centers on Ruslan, deputy director of the Grozny Museum of Regional Art, who – owing to the fact that the museum lies in ruins – is put in charge of the new Grozny Tourist Bureau, under orders to help turn the ruined Chechen capital into “the Dubai of the Caucasus.”
Many of the story details come from Marra’s firsthand experience.
“I actually took a package tour with the equivalent of the Grozny Tourist Bureau,” Marra said in a recent telephone interview. “I took a few creative licenses, but yeah. I was set to go to Chechnya, and I was supposed to stay with a surgeon there whose family I’m friends with, and it didn’t work out. I had this ticket to go and at the time I was a graduate student, and I had no real institutional support, so I started looking on Twitter for ‘Grozny tourism’ and I found this business called Chechnya Travel. It’s the first tourist agency in Chechnya. They had a package tour called the Seven Wonders of Chechnya. It was two weeks long, I was the only tourist on it. They said I was the first American tourist to visit Chechnya postwar.
“A lot of the kind of absurdity of that story came directly from that trip. All the Jim Carrey references – these bizarre conversations I’d have with people who could quote every Jim Carrey movie from heart.”
These were the stories he went to Chechnya to find – the stories of average citizens, people who were neither soldiers nor rebels, people who were not particularly political.
“It was remarkable to see the way in which the republic, and particularly Grozny, has been reconstructed and rebuilt, but how despite that, the trauma of the wars lingers on in the minds and hearts of the citizens,” he said.
He visited Grozny city center, which features several new skyscrapers and is touted as a redevelopment success. But the city’s electrical grid is not consistent, and the power routinely goes out.
“When I visited, there were all these well-heeled bureaucrats and technocrats hanging out in the parking lot waiting for the electricity to go on so they could take the elevators up to the 30th floor,” he said. He struck up a conversation with one younger technocrat, who said, “I want to invite you to my house.”
Marra agreed. The two walked to a field, with some brick and concrete in the middle, but that was otherwise completely empty.
“He began describing the house that had been there, a little bit like Ruslan, the head of the Grozny Tourist Bureau, does at the beginning of that story. He talks about his grandparents who lived there, the garden, the porch, et cetera, and then said that Russian rockets had demolished the entire building,” Marra said. “He then asked me to walk to the center of the field, and he asked one of his friends to take a photograph of the two of us together. I asked him why. And he said so that he could prove that he’s had an American as a guest in his home. The sense of the past and what’s missing still being so deeply imprinted into the memories and in the present lives of these people was deeply affecting.”
The other major locale in “Tsar” is Kirovsk. It’s north of the Arctic Circle in Siberia. It’s home to a massive nickel mining and smelting operation that has left the city toxic. Kirovsk is not a real place, but has its roots in reality.
“It’s based on an actual city called Norilsk. And the history of Norilsk and Kirovsk are a pretty much the same. Norilsk is this massive nickel mine with this history of gulag labor, and it’s routinely cited as one of the most polluted places on earth.”
He created Kirovsk for the simple reason that he couldn’t visit Norilsk – foreigners are not allowed in the town of nearly 200,000. “I felt a little uncomfortable using as a centerpiece a place that I actually hadn’t been to.”
He started writing the stories for “Tsar” as he was working on “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.” Initially, he intended the stories to be unrelated. “Around the time ‘Constellation’ came out, people who like it would ask me what I was working on next. And I would say, ‘A short story collection,’ and there would be this look of great disappointment.”
It made him realize that in American literary culture, short stories are viewed as the minor leagues, despite accomplished works by the likes of George Saunders and Junot Diaz, Karen Russell and Adam Johnson. But he also began to see that the fragmented nature of a story collection would allow him to tell a bigger and more expansive story “than I could ever write in a novel form.”
“It says stories on the cover. I’ve heard a lot of reviewers refer to it as a novel. We have no real good English word to describe that in-between space between a collection and a novel. ‘Linked stories’ sounds like an awful dating website, ‘a novel in stories’ just sounds absurd,” he said
He sees similarities, in fact, between “Tsar” and “Beautiful Ruins,” the 2012 novel by Spokane’s Jess Walter, which told its intertwining stories across continents and decades.
This kind of writing, whether it be short fiction or a fragmented novel, is appealing, Marra said. He loves the experimentation the story form allows. One couldn’t maintain, for instance, an entire novel voiced in first-person plural. But it works in a short story, as in the story “Granddaughters” from “Tsar.”
“I think that for a writer, the payoff is much clearer sooner,” he said of writing short stories. “If you get a year into a novel and you realize it doesn’t work, that’s quite dispiriting. Whereas, for me at least, I know pretty quickly that a short story isn’t going to work, so it’s only a couple weeks down the drain.”
Another fun aspect of “Tsar”? The actual mixtape. Or rather, the Spotify playlist. There’s a cassette tape of techno music that one of the characters, Alexei, gives to his brother as he heads off to fight the war in Chechnya. In keeping with the spirit of the piece, Marra created the playlist and posted it on Spotify. It’s an odd assortment of remixes of Russian classics (“March” from “The Nutcracker” as a dubstep track) and popular club songs (“Heartbeats” by The Knife, for instance).
“Some of it I was listening to as I was writing the book,” he said. “Others were tracks I found afterwards. It was after I’d finished writing the book and turned it in, which is the most terrifying time for any book because you can’t make any changes anymore and you don’t really know what the world thinks, so you’re stuck in this sort of purgatory. And I’m an obsessive re-writer, so creating this playlist was a way of immersing myself in the book again and its narrative without having to change a word.”