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Wrapped up in Anthony Marra’s ‘Mercury Pictures Presents’

I’ve said in the past in this space that when you see me dedicating a column to the virtues of a single book or author, I am not acting as a book critic or book reviewer, but as a book enthusiast who has had a reading experience so enjoyable, that he can’t help but share this enjoyment with the wider world.

The subject of today’s enthusiasm is Anthony Marra’s latest novel, “Mercury Pictures Presents.”

Marra is previously the author of the terrific “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” and the even more terrific “The Tsar of Love and Techno,” and with “Mercury Pictures Presents” he cements himself as one of the most deft and most enjoyable novelists working today.

“Mercury Pictures Presents” opens with a description of a scale model of the titular, fictional Mercury Pictures, a lesser light Hollywood movie studio in 1941, which carves its niche by producing B-pictures (or lower) that trade on audience familiarity with major studio fare.

The model includes not just the studio buildings, but miniature figurines in the various offices and production spaces, including one for Maria Lagana, an Italian expatriate who fled the country with her mother as a child during the rise of the fascist Mussolini government. Her father has been left behind in an Italian penal colony, imprisoned because of an inadvertent act by Maria, who was trying to burn her father’s critical writings of the government, which instead led to the papers’ exposure and father’s imprisonment.

Maria works for Artie Feldman, co-founder of Mercury Pictures with his twin brother Ned. Artie the old-fashioned showman and Ned the bean counter are engaged in a fight for control, a fight which is significantly complicated by a sudden positive change in the studio’s fortunes when they become the government’s preferred provider of U.S. propaganda films.

That scale model of the studio symbolizes what Marra is up to in the novel, where Artie, Maria, and another Italian expatriate, Vincent Cortese, who has a history with Maria back in the home country when he had another name, are the main touchstone characters, but Marra could choose to transport you to any corner of the world at any moment

The result is a fully inhabited world where one moment you are in the midst of a thriller, as Vincent has one last long-shot chance to flee his home for America, and in the next you might be in a bit of slapstick comedy between two bit player stuntmen who have done more dying than anyone in the history of cinema.

No character is too small for their entire story to be told. Marra uses a technique of prolepsis (flash forward) to fill us in on the entire life trajectory of a person we may have encountered for only a few paragraphs, often to great emotional effect, as these small stories are juxtaposed against the longer arcs of the focal characters.

I could go on for pages about my admiration for Marra’s technique and execution — the dozens of books he cites as background and source material in the acknowledgments testify to the thoroughness and care he took in bringing this world into being — but what I most recall is the general warmth of feeling every time I picked up the book and spent time in that world.

Finishing the book on a recent afternoon when I had various work responsibilities that should have been more urgent, I was both excited and disappointed to see the number of pages until the end shrinking.

When I did finish, I let out a deep, satisfied sigh. What higher endorsement is there?

John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”

Twitter @biblioracle

Book recommendations from the Biblioracle

John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read.

1. “Glass, Irony and God” by Anne Carson

2. “Kudos” by Rachel Cusk

3. “Chess Story” by Stefan Zweig

4. “Inside the Blood Factory” by Diane Wakoski

5. “The Diary of Anaïs Nin Vol. 2″ by Anaïs Nin

— Joanne L., Oradell, New Jersey

This is a good list for me to recommend one of my favorite authors who I don’t often have occasion to recommend, Heinrich Böll, and his close look at the toll of war on a single man returned home to a ruined county, “Billiards at Half-Past Nine.”

1. “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies

2. “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan

3. “Upstate” by James Wood

4. “White Noise” by Don DeLillo

5. “Suttree” by Cormac McCarthy

— Linus P., New York City

Linus is a good candidate for another novel that’s at the top of my personal favorites, the simultaneously hilarious and despairing “A Fan’s Notes” by Frederick Exley.

1. “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles

2. “The Every” by Dave Eggers

3. “The Testaments” by Margaret Atwood

4. “In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown” by Amy Gary

5. “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell

— Mina T., Chicago

I see some indications that Mina is drawn to books that wrestle with ideas alongside the rendering of human drama. That brings to mind Lauren Grodstein’s “The Explanation of Everything,” about a college professor trying to repair a fractured life, even as a student shakes the foundations of what he thinks he knows.

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