Last year, trying to put my aspiring-yet-undisciplined writer self into some sort of routine, I texted Tom Markham ‘15, former Nass Writer and hometown friend, with a proposal. “Let’s pledge to each write 500 words a day, three days a week, for a month. Each week we complete our goal, we owe the other a beer. Each week we don’t, we owe the other a book.”
“I’m into it!” he wrote back. Two weeks later, he texted again: “Well, I owe you a book.”
When we finally got together, we exchanged the books our busy (lazy?) selves were apparently due. He handed me one with a cover showing the back of a frame with stylized words overlaid across the back of a canvas. The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories.
“I read this in grad school,” he told me. “I tend to think in bigger terms, which isn’t super conducive to learning how to write self-contained short stories. This book showed me that you can have it both ways.”
It wasn’t until this past Christmas Eve that I finally got around to opening the book my own laziness had awarded me. The first story is the tale of an artist-turned-Soviet censor who sneaks portraits of his brother into the artworks he must rectify. Imprisoned by his own Party with the guarantee that his forced capitulation will ultimately serve the greater good, the censor reflects to himself, “I knew then, beyond doubt, that I had sealed myself to the state, that my faith had become unshakeable, my loyalty unimpeachable, because if this was wrong, if we did thisin vain, all the water in the Baltic wouldn’t be enough to cleanse us.”
With that, I was all in.
This novel-in-stories traces the lives of multiple generations of characters from the early days of the Soviet Union up into the near-future, all interconnected by an obscure nineteenth-century painting. Each episode is self-contained yet relates to the others in sometimes overt but more often profoundly subtle ways. Author Anthony Marra masterfully weaves these snapshots into a multi-layered world. He kept me entranced by his prose, his characters, and his way of reflecting human commonalities through the sheer inventiveness of his mind.
I finished this masterpiece while I was dog-sitting for an old teacher of mine. The last story, simply entitled “The End,” synthesizes the work’s entire thematic web into maybe the purest reflection of humanity I’ve read in my fifteen years of consuming books. When I was three pages from the end, I, alone in someone else’s home, took a long sip of water and read the rest of the book out loud, to myself, as slowly as I could, taking deep breaths between sentences. When I turned the last page, I set the book down on the table in front of me and sat there for at least half an hour until the pizza delivery man rang the doorbell and jolted me up.
The only way I can repay Tom for his kindness is to pay it forward: you must read this book. It is important, powerful, daring, and so, so wonderful. Please, do me a favor and read it.