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 spirals into ever-widening disagreements over who did what on January 6, 2021 and whether women should have reproductive rights, it seems right and proper that a novel about Italian fascism in the Second World War should emphasize how simple it’s that we all fall prey to false romantic narratives. Even better when the author is Anthony Marra, and doing the book Mercury Pictures Presents from the perspective of a poorly run Hollywood film studio.

The book sounds almost like Fellini in reverse: life itself provides the ridiculous parts. Only appearances can save us. Although protagonist Maria Lagana finds out, appearances are sometimes just as dangerous as reality. Maria, an Italian immigrant who made a dark personal decision that lands her in a Los Angeles home with her mother and various aunts, has managed to become an associate producer and deputy to Artie Feldman, the co-owner, along with his Brother Ned the eponymous ramshackle 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 screened in the USSR in the mid-20’s. He can conjure up both a desolate Italian cottage and a garrulous American household, both a ridiculously 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, and weaves it all together with witty asides. Maria finds: “Her great-aunts’ understanding of Catholicism was so inconsistent that it couldn’t really be called monotheism. It was a protective bat.” For her, “As with any invasive procedure, it was best to get out of marriage while you were young enough to get back on your feet.”

The first third of “Mercury” feels aptly cinematic, spinning readers through a half-dozen scenes so varied they feel like a passel of movie trailers, more evocative than narrative. The action ping-pongs of Maria and Artie’s Adam’s Rib-like repartee (completely platonic as Maria stands by her true love, Eddie Lu) back to Giuseppe’s imprisonment of her father by Mussolini’s racquet and on to Artie and Ned’s borscht-belty punch and Judy Show.

If these set pieces were the trailers, what would the feature film be? Oddly enough, there doesn’t seem to be one in Mercury Pictures Presents. After a long stretch in Italy involving a stolen identity, a village boy-turned-kingpin of the mafia, and a harrowing escape, we get two more long shaggy stories: Eddie Lu stars in American propaganda films; German émigré Anna Weber observes her architecturally precise miniatures of Berlin, which were used during bombing raids. Steeped in the story is Vincent Cortese, a photographer whose camera is taken away due to his status as a “hostile alien”.

The cover of "Mercury Pictures Presents: A Novel" by Anthony Marra

Maria is another “enemy alien”. One of Marra’s themes in this novel is imprisonment of all kinds. Confined to an invisibly confined ‘confino’, Giuseppe and his comrades obey because they have nowhere else to go, while Maria seeks out a tiny, hidden office space on a studio lot, to privately pursue a heart project. Anna confines herself mentally to the Kreuzberg streets of loved memories. And as for Eddie, a would-be lead actor, his Asian features relegate him to voice-overs and supporting roles, prison sentences that reflect another ugly facet of the war’s xenophobia.

“Mercury” begins and ends in Italy, which makes sense within the logic of the plot, but its deepest meaning, if not its main action, lies in Eddie’s insight into how a government simultaneously exploits and abuses citizens. His enlightenment concerns the treatment of Asian Americans, but given the diverse groups whose talents are sucked in and spewed out by the war machine (painters, writers, scientists, and more), the threat has tentacles that Marra will agree could reach all of us, if it is not marked.

At one point, Artie wonders “how does one act morally when moral action meets egregious immorality in response?” Could there be a more succinct way of talking 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 who puts her undeniably unique vision at the service of an image that denies the uniqueness of individual experience”.

Maria decides “Riefenstahl could not be surpassed…only undone” and begins planning “The False Front,” an emulation of a production that combines studio b-roll war scenes with new material. Her project echoes the revelations of poor, dispossessed photographer Vincent and recalls Susan Sontag’s essays on form.

In other words, Maria wants to show that what matters is not what a photographer photographs, but how: “It was the fickle presence of the photographer’s mortality… that created a sense of authenticity. It was realism perfected through error. The constant reminder that you were looking at a faulty record made them deeply trustworthy. And of course that could be manipulated.”

For Eddie, involvement in the fabrication of that facade is proving untenable in the face of Hollywood prejudice—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 takes readers back across the Atlantic to Italy, where a great wrong is righted not through confession or the wheels of justice, but through tireless love and forgiveness.

Is this too shallow a conclusion, an affirmation of an American passion for happy endings as manipulative as the false authenticity that makes Eddie nervous? However, Marra was smart enough to sprinkle his novel with unhappier endings so that when that one good thing happens, it deserves, even feels…authentic.

Though bumpy and downright discursive at many points, “Mercury Pictures Presents” ultimately reaches a grandeur beyond detail in its cinematic reach. Also, we could all use a great narrative every now and then, especially now that that kind of thing seems to be fading on the horizon with each passing day.

Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven. Review: Anthony Marra’s new novel “Mercury Pictures Presents”

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