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June 6, 2013

Book Notes - Anthony Marra "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena"

What Changes Everything

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Few writers earn multiple comparisons to Leo Tolstoy and Jonathan Safran Foer, but Anthony Marra has with his remarkable novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Marra deftly explores lives touched by the Chechnyan conflict in one of the year's most impressive debuts.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Marra seems to derive his astral calm in the face of catastrophe directly from Tolstoy. Constellation might be a 21st century War and Peace, except, as the informer warns, there’s no real peace available."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Anthony Marra's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena:

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is set in Chechnya, where the average playlist would likely contain a mix of traditional folk music and bad Russian techno. The former is difficult to find on this side of the world and the latter you probably wouldn't want to find, so this is less the music that characters would listen to within the novel's pages, a more a playlist of music that surrounds the novel, its writing, and its emotional world.

"Who Dat Girl" by Flo Rida

I'm a sincere, irony-free Flo Rida fan. When I'm down, he cheers me up. When I'm cheered up, he keeps me cheered. Last year I traveled to Chechnya, and on the first full day my driver picked me up early in the morning at my hotel. I was a little nervous when he moved a heavy flak vest to make room for my suitcase in the truck. But when he started the engine and "Who Dat Girl" blasted through the speakers, I knew I was in good company.

"Stayin' Alive" by The Bee Gees

One of the characters in Constellation recites the lyrics of "Stayin'Alive" as a prayer to keep her safe during the siege of her city ("Feel the city breakin' and everybody shakin' and we're stayin' alive"). Western cultural exports like this are often recontextualized when they reach the rest of the world. Several times in Chechnya I heard people say, "Don't worry, I'm a limo driver," when making a small mistake. The line comes from a scene in Dumb and Dumber when Jim Carrey's character races off a jetway and falls to the airport tarmac.

"One More Time" by Daft Punk

One of the characters in the novel is a young woman who spends the prewar years going to dance parties in an abandoned airplane hangar. While those scenes predate Daft Punk by a few years, I always imagined their music thundering in the background.

"A Rainy Night in Soho" by Shane MacGowan

London is one of the few non-Chechen locales to appear in the book. It's a place I've visited for a few days here and there, and whenever I'm there I find myself listening to "A Rainy Night in Soho" (the live version from Across the Broad Atlantic is much better than the studio cut). None of Shane MacGowan's love songs contain the kind of crushy infatuation we normally think of as love songs. Instead, his love songs are about the messiness of devotion, kindness, and failure. This one is his best.

"Scarface (Push it to the Limit)" by Paul Engemann

In Chechnya, I introduced myself to people as Tony Marra. Half of the time I would receive an immediate smile and the response, "Like Tony Montana?" The popularity of Scarface in Chechnya is ubiquitous, among men at least, and the fluke of having a name that sounds a little like that of Al Pacino's iconic character went a long way to helping me make friends.

"Saeglópur" by Sigur Ros

I began listening to Sigur Ros the same month I started working on Constellation and with them broke my long-standing ban on playing music while writing. While they hail from Iceland, land of my forefathers, their music is strange, whimsical, melancholic, and rapturous in a way that makes me think it could be the score to the world of Constellation.

"Kalinka" Russian folksong

There are various versions of this traditional song online, from the operatic Red Army Choir version to a vodka-slurred dance cut by Party Factory. I learned it in an elementary Russian class in college and have had it stuck in my head ever since. If you look it up, chances are that you will too.

"Let it Be" by The Beatles (Russian cover version)

This video of a Beatles cover went viral a few years back, and no matter how many times I see it, it never fails to make me happy. You really should listen to the cover yourself, but if not, imagine a Russian Pavarotti dressed in a sailor's uniform belting "Let It Be" with unrestrained joy. As this recent book review in The Guardian attests, The Beatles were for many Soviet citizens the soundtrack to their personal disillusionment with state ideology.

"Dancing Queen" by ABBA

1970s pop music runs through the novel. The Bee Gees' biggest hit is played, a character walks past a kiosk selling Air Supply cassettes, and ABBA is mentioned. According to the previously linked review of How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin, Soviet institutions promoted disco because it was music that could be sealed within the limits of a dance floor. In any event, I've always had a soft spot for "Dancing Queen."

"Hallelujah" by Jeff Buckley

Toward the end of the novel there is a scene in which a father considers killing his estranged son, whose informing has destroy their village. As he contemplates this immense decision, he lies down beside his sleeping son and tries to breathe in time with him. I've always pictured this scene with the ghost of Jeff Buckley somewhere out of frame, singing, "Every breath we drew was Hallelujah."

Anthony Marra and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena links:

video trailer for the book

Cleveland Plain Dealer review
The Coffin Factory review
Denver Post review
Entertainment Weekly review
Globe and Mail review
Kirkus Reviews review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
The Rumpus review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Washington Post review
Winnipeg Free Press review

The Atlantic essay by the author
CBC Radio interview with the author
National Post profile of the author
New York Times profile of the author
Omnivoracious interview with the author
PowellsBooks.Blog interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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